Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.

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Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.

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In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.

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The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.

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Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).

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In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.

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Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).

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Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 1

What follows is taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing. References to the tradition 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions.

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It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return. He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, ‘Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.’ The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.

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So the poems of the Daodejing are a gift, freely given at a point of change, a gateway to new experience. They are also a turning away from the world (Laozi is said to have despaired of its venality and corruption), yet a transmission intended to aid, an inspired out-pouring of poetry as much as a moral and political handbook. Perhaps above all we should think of them as a response to a personal request. Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘Legend of the origin of the book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s road into exile’, seeks to praise the “customs man” who “deserves his bit. / It was he who called for it” (tr. John Willett). Modern scholarship, of course, has long since stripped away such eloquent myths. Most likely, the current 5000 characters of the Daodejing were far fewer to begin with, a series of orally transmitted seed verses compiled by many hands, an aide memoire, certainly an aid to teaching from as far back as the 7th century BCE. Passed on orally, then transcribed, with the usual levels of error, displacement, ‘correction’ and happenstance, the text has also been subject to the Chinese tradition of written commentaries and these intercalated texts have themselves become vanishingly absorbed into the original. Such an uncertain state of the text legitimates considerable levels of ‘correction’ for most would-be translators; in this case, I have excised material only from ‘Dangers of prominence’ (Chapter 13) and ‘The great clamour’ (Chapter 23), silently removing a few lines of (what I thought of as) redundant repetition.

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Yet the poems are still vivid, astonishingly fresh, irresistible. They are also still subject to continuing textual debate and archaeological inquiry. The standard text has long been the one associated with the scholar Wang Bi (226-49CE) which divides the Daodejing into 81 Chapters and those into two sections. On the importance and insights of Wang Bi, see Wagner, Rudolf G., The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (SUNY Press, 2000). The Dao or Way is made up of the first 37 Chapters; the De or Power occupies Chapters 38 to 81. But an archaeological dig as recently as 1973 at Mawangdui revealed two new versions of the text, dating from around 200BCE. Surprisingly, both Mawangdui texts reverse this order and some recent versions into English have adopted this change. Most notably, see Robert G. Hendricks who produced a re-shaped Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Ballantine Books, 1989). Also see D. C. Lau’s second translation of the texts published as Lao-Tzu Tao Te Ching (Everyman Books, 1982). I have not done so. The traditional division between the Way and the Power of the Dao is by no means watertight or proven but I feel it makes more sense to explore the nature of the Way before considering its more specific manifestations. Also, as a sequence of poems, ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1), summing up as it does so much of what is to follow, surely has to come first.

Though probably the work of many hands over many years, it’s still hard not to hear (with Wang Bi) a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic; it flaunts its paradoxes, is boldly metaphorical, juxtapositional, repetitive to the point of liturgical, urgent, unashamedly epigrammatic. In short, we seem to hear Laozi writing a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet. Of course, language is imperfect but it’s what we must use and I have given titles to each of the Chapters to encourage contemporary readers to approach them in large part as language, I mean as poetry.

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For a text so geographically, culturally and temporally remote, some consideration of key images and ideas is necessary. The Dao is not an individual entity, still less anything divine, it is more a mode of being that is all encompassing, a phenomenal, an existential primacy – perhaps akin to the western idea of original chaos. It can usefully be seen from epistemological, temporal, perceptual, political or environmental perspectives, though none of these exhaust its real nature. It is not subject to time yet contains it. It is never fixed. It is the ever-here, both omnipresent and unchanging. We might be tempted to say the Dao is the substratum of all things, the ground base – but language’s introduction of levels and hierarchical ideas is not helpful to our already feeble grasp of it. Certainly, it is the whole, the one that precedes the many.

So these poems explore how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with. They suggest the Dao initially gives rise to two things, heaven and earth (‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1)) and the poems subsequently make use of the formulation ‘the ten thousand things’ to suggest the Dao’s proliferation or subdivision into all there is. It is in this way that the Dao is the mother of all things (‘Of all things’ (Chapter 25)); it is like water, a pool from which all things draw life (‘Something greater’ (Chapter 4); it is the uncarved block of wood that has inherent within it all things that have been, are, will be (‘Uncarved wood’ (Chapter 15). Most importantly, the Dao is beyond conception and so beyond any conventional use of language, the limits of which constitute a recurring motif in the Daodejing: ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1); ‘Awareness (Chapter 56); ‘Store (Chapter 81). Of course, our quotidian lives must pass in this ‘fallen’ state, full of a misplaced confidence in the reality of the ten thousand things, including our own discrete selves, so Laozi emphasises – in recurrent images of reprise or re-visiting – that only if we can return to a more clear awareness of the presence and reality of the Dao, can our behaviour and experience of life be more true, fulfilled, harmonious. Tennyson’s otherwise unremarkable poem, ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), describes approaching the “mortal limit of the Self” and passing “into the Nameless [. . .] and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were sun to spark – unshadowable in words”.

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 Part 2 of this Introduction to the Daodejing will be posted next week (and is now available by clicking here).

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is trying not to breathe, and I am trying

not to swallow, as my saliva rises around his

finger, a foreign body. He inserts his mirror

to examine my every crevice . . .

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

I am a vessel, open

to your body. If only you could

move through me, enter

the spleen, the coiled intestine . . .

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

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

A finger blades a line

straight            from throat to womb

peel back my skin        reveal

the workhouse            of heart and lung

blood

slogging           through my veins

my discontented bones

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

What we want

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

stays black on the horizon;

the moon of the zebra crossing

flashing for no one.

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

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

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

Into the Swims – or She’s Leaving Home

A remarkable thing has happened in our house this week. My daughter’s room has been tidied – and it has remained that way.

The duvet is unrumpled on the bed. A phone charger remains thoughtfully unplugged on the floor beside the bed. The pages of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend have not been turned any further. The few coins on the desk wait to be spent. No rubbish is accumulating in the plastic bin beside the desk. A laundry basket has been emptied and seems not to be refilling as it usually does. There are few clothes hanging in the wardrobe. The door stands open onto the landing for days on end. There is hardly a movement in the wave-shaped mirror beside which, vertically, a friend wrote in pencil  ‘Don’t crack the mirror’. Actually, to be truthful, there is the slightest of motions to be seen there – it’s me standing in the centre of the room, staring around.

We took her to university last weekend. We miss her. And in the absence of more detailed news we’re pretty sure she’s having a good time. She’s never friended us on Facebook but she somehow did so ages ago with my parents. So we hear remotely about smiling pictures, roseate cheeks in flashlight, black backdrops. I think yesterday she was supposed to be attending her first dissection (I remember that vividly – more of that in a later post perhaps).

In the mean time, to wish her well and permit myself some lovely sentimental thoughts of her in younger days, I thought I’d post a couple of older pieces I wrote which feature her.

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Both these poems originally appeared in Hurt (Enitharmon, 2010). The first derives from a walk we pursued when she was about 5, I think. By walk I mean, she walked a bit and I carried her on my shoulders the rest of the way. This was probably in the hills near Sedburgh – sheep country, close-cropped grass, heather, little stony paths. I suspect we plotted a waterfall or two into the route for a few squares of chocolate (temptation) for her and her older brother.

One thing after another

The ivory, angular vertebra I found
the day after the day my daughter found

and tried out her new word – fuck –
was bony, spiky to touch, rough as fuck.

I thought: Depths! Essence! Bone!
She bent to it, touched it, turning bone.

Leave it, I called. She said, Is it real?
White in the grass the contrast was real.

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The second poem is later, from an occasion when we were visiting Canadian cousins, staying in a house in the Lake Country north of Toronto. To me it felt like something out of early Margaret Atwood and we spent ages fishing from the rickety wooden dock, paddling in a rowing boat and (as here) swimming out to a tethered raft (she has always been a good swimmer).

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There is a well-buried allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost in the middle of this poem – from the description in Book 1 of the fallen angels or devils closing in around Satan (“their doubl’d ranks they bend / From wing to wing, and half enclose him round / With all his peers” ll. 616-8). This is the second part of a sequence called Wilderness:

See my flesh and blood

here, bright and true

as a sun on the rise,

she launches herself

from the anchored platform,

flies into the air

over the blue-lit water,

unaware of tethers

beneath the surface,

of ropes, trailing weed,

slime, mud and scales

stiffening in reaction

to her vigorous action.

Here she is, hanging,

all parts my daughter,

curling like a ball,

the sudden black water,

while the white trunks

of ten thousand trees

cram the lake shore

and enclose her round.

All sounds hang back

as she arcs and peaks,

begins her slow bow

to the pull of gravity,

the smash of water,

the great churning

of foam and white limbs

yellowing as they spread

to carve out stroke

after buoyant stroke

into the swims of joy

and grief she’ll tread.

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A bundle of 50 sticks to start a fire

I have used this form – derived from Lee Harwood – for a blog-poem before. I rather like its loose encompassment and also as a welcome change to the often ‘lit crit’ nature of my usual blogs. Just roll with it . . . it’s what I say to myself. This one is dedicated to Stephen Stuart-Smith and all at Enitharmon Press.

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A bundle of 50 sticks to start a fire

(for Stephen)

I did not break my fast Thursday last

Rose and showered at 7am before realizing and getting back under the covers for another 20 minutes

The street strangely lit there seemed to be so much more sky

The council have cut down flowering cherries claiming they are diseased but the word is it is to prevent – in both senses – claims against them for subsidence

At the surgery I was sixth in line

reading Blake Morrison on Ted Hughes published 5 September 1993 on yellowing newspaper pages that had tumbled out of a book I was re-shelving

As for his marriage to Plath, one day he may choose to speak about it, but for now –

I glimpse an old neighbor now divorced his wife and children have moved out we nod but very remotely

never watch when the blood is taken

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Starbucks trade in the medical centre I watched being built years ago when I’d swim more often even then imagining myself at one of the windows waiting for news of some test or other

T. has woken by the time I return to eat but it’s me who puts away the groceries that have been delivered

handed me the bottle of wine laughing you don’t want to lose that he said my hesitation as I re-envisaged him as a romantic gift-bringer left an awkward pause I couldn’t cover

How does I have plenty of time transform itself swiftly into running late

hardly anywhere to park

Queens Wood stretches up behind these houses then bridges a road then sinks following its contours to the pond then rises again climbing to Muswell Hill and this is to be boxed into the word ‘topography’

A half empty carriage

‘Ultragreen’ in which what is out there seems to come inside in a process Kate cleverly likens to photosynthesis and cleverly this gets away from me

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The Whitehill Food Market I have passed that place

Walking up from the Emirates when I can’t get my mind off the strange limps and weaves of the way other people walk they are not hell but merely unfamiliar ways of moving

the fountains flow in the centre of the square

A dog wets its feet and drops a red ball into the pool and I guess its owner will be irritated by that

Brecht refused to award the prize to any of the five hundred entries. In none, he said, was there any successful attempt to communicate anything of any value

‘Nothing makes me feel more like a poet than being unable to talk’

Pub date Isobel calls it pub date

The absence of punctuation is in the spirit of the Daodejing it is the water course way one drop of water in the ocean no trace of it but don’t tell me it’s not there

A house in Selbourne

An image of a child with arms outstretched fingers widespread so much he might be a tree

Ripples of damp sand are the footprints of the shaggy oceanic beast

‘To embrace’

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A plain cheese and tomato brown bread roll and I am back madeleine-like to dinner-time sandwiches at Junior School during which we’d meet Mum from work and sit in Trowbridge Park why did we do that

It must have saved money

A timetable is the opposite of the way water flows and this grid dominates my life

Poems not even by rote but by the hour of the day

‘Pike’ so we watched YouTube clips of fish ducklings kittens being devoured it gets them started

Town kids city dwellers

as out of place as John Wyndham’s alien creatures like little pink M&Ms on four legs two of which are really arms they carry fire sticks

‘A sort of genocide’

The original Homer Simpson whose hands are uncontrollable

‘his thumb received a nasty cut. Although the wound must have hurt, the calm, slightly querulous expression he usually wore did not change’

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Explore how far West’s presentation of Homer suggests he is a trapped man

The spider plant on the windowsill looks anaemic in its white pot against white painted window frames against thunderheads miles off

I am free at 17.10

I don’t need most of this

Occasionally there are evenings I can’t remember where I parked the car once I thought I’d left it on the garage forecourt after filling it up and I went in and got them to review the CCTV footage which told me that I had driven it away earlier that day and like some log-jam shifting slightly I had a vision of parking it on First Avenue and there it was all along

I need a framework perhaps

‘Echo Beach far away in time Echo Beach far away in time’

I like to change my clothes after a day’s work

So I asked them to bring in pictures of pike and this one brought in a picture of a cod

A Delia recipe

The evening is filled with cakes of varying heights

42

Poems, Swerve and Alan Brownjohn’s Sky Blue Trousers

Life should be full of swerve is what I have been thinking recently. It’s how I prefer my days to unfold and certainly one of the main reasons why I value poetry. In dipping and swooping from this to that, swerve serves to exercise our capacities in terms of tension, torque, balance and force. I’m talking emotionally and psychological here, of course, though last Saturday evening did find me doing swerving obeisance to the sat nav woman as I drove up to the Dugdale Centre in Enfield, north London.

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It had also been a pretty swervy week in the more serious sense too. My brother and I have been emailing trying to organise a Lasting Power of Attorney in regard to our nonagenarian parents, alongside my daughter’s final events in the Sixth Form, filled with promise and talented and beautiful friends. A liking for swerve also accounts for why I have always loved that moment in The Winter’s Tale when the Old Shepherd talks of meeting both things dying and things new-born.

As it’s also the end of my teaching year, the week had also been spent revising what I think of these days (thanks for nothing Sam Riviere) as my ‘81 Laozis’: my new versions of the 81 chapters of Laozi’s Daodejing which Enitharmon will be publishing next Spring. There’s a good deal of swerve in the poems’ urging towards openness, flexibility, sense of balance:

[to be] circumspect as a man

who crosses a stream in winter

watchful and alert to danger on all sides

respectful as on a first visit

yielding like ice when the thaw sets in

blank as a piece of uncarved wood

receptive as a valley cut through hills

I think of what the Daodejing proposes as the exact opposite of the (too much blood-stained) rigidities of fundamentalism. As I said, this is why I love poetry’s ability to swerve quickly, often without transition, from one thing to another, one emotion or image to another. And so, I was off to Enfield where Alan Murray runs the meetings of Enfield poets at the unprepossessing Dugdale Centre which – as its name might suggest – contains a Lidl store, an Argos store, a multistory car park and a theatre and arts complex. The readings on Saturday took place in a municipal box within a municipal box but even that didn’t spoil the event (poetry does make something happen when it’s read and shared like this).

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Alan (whose thoughtful book Perhaps was published by Acumen in 2013) introduced floor readers then handed over to Patricia Oxley as the three main poets were Acumen magazine related. John Greening first, whose quiet, measured delivery belies the time he has spent teaching literature to classes of schoolchildren. Dressed in chinos and pale shirt (yes, I’m doing the fashion notes too this time), I grudgingly admit (being a teacher myself) that he looked like a teacher, suggesting nothing of the real powerhouse of writing, editing, anthologising, reviewing and social-medi-ing that Greening is beneath that mild Clark Kent exterior. Born and raised in Hounslow he read ‘Heath Row’ from To the War Poets.

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Topical, given the recent scandalous report suggesting a third runway to plague the poor citizens of west London, the poem reverses time’s arrow, unearthing what lies beneath tarmac and terminals, back to the original heath and bog, to sarsen stones and druidic rites, back further to a time when “the earth shudders, floods, howls, ignites”. His most recent book is threaded with addresses to the First World War poets and each short poem cunningly, often wittily, says something about the work of each. ‘To Edward Thomas’ notes: “You died at an observation post. / You looked and looked, and saw the detail / we do not”. Greening has also just published a major anthology, Accompanied Voices, with one of the world’s great music-publishing companies, Boydell Press. He read his own ‘Field’ from it, about poor John Field (inventor of the Nocturne) and the artistic irony that it was Chopin who superceded him, or as the poem puts it with all the brutality of the historical process, he “walked all over him”.

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Shanta Acharya’s poems often record the phenomena of the natural world in part for themselves but also, as (her DPhil subject) Emerson suggests, because they can be read as the language of the “Universal Being”. Set in the artistic beauty of a Catholic church, the opening lines of ‘Italian Prayer’ ask: “How does one accustomed to the cold candour of stones / bend one’s knee in reverence”. Acharya’s work is, as Mimi Khalvati has said, “unafraid to take on the abstract, metaphysical, spiritual”. Dressed in an exquisite ivory-cream shalwar-kameez she also read the poem ‘Somewhere, Something’ from Dreams That Spell The Light (Arc Publications, 2010) that argues we do not travel “to explore another country / but to return home fresh, bearing gifts”. In fact, these gifts are for the self because all true experiences – thus discounting those of the ‘mere’ tourist – inevitably change us. The poem concludes, “Let’s fly free, not nailed to a mast; / see the universe with new eyes / not blinded by shadows that light casts”.

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She also spoke of the Sanskrit phrase ‘neti neti’ (the title of an earlier collection) meaning ‘not this, not that’ as a definition of God or spiritual experience. This provoked a later discussion on the link between this idea and Laozi’s Daoist ideas, then The Cloud of Unknowing, followed by the writings of Julian of Norwich. Good swerves all. Lidl and Argos were well closed by this time of night.

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My maternal grandmother would look sceptically up to a cloudy sky on occasions and make a meteorological call on the basis of whether or not there was enough blue sky to make a man’s pair of trousers. Well, those very trousers were being worn by Alan Brownjohn last Saturday evening, teamed with an unthreatening-cloud-coloured pale shirt. Brownjohn’s delivery is also very quiet, words seeming to emerge more from the side of his mouth, confirming that his tongue is often firmly in his cheek, doing deconstruction and the humour of post-modern irony before it was called such. Yet he manages to load poems with a weight of emotion too; he burns away sentiment, but still moves his readers.

Alan Brownjohn more formally attired

I was pleased he read several of the Ludbrooke & Others poems, 13 line sonnets for our austere age and an anti-hero-loser who nevertheless somehow gets our sympathy. Ludbrooke boasts of his “transformative” love-making in ‘His Classic Modesty’ (he persuades us it “is like the Acropolis”). In ‘His Jealousy’ he wants to persuade us (and himself, of course) that he has “deconstructed” and “junked” that emotion, only to feel the full force of it around line 12 to 13. We recognise a commonality at the same time as being allowed the space to imagine ourselves better than Ludbrooke. See the setting, re-setting, re-positioning of the powerful swerve going on there? That feeling you get after vigourous physical exercise of being stronger, more balanced, more capable? Poetry makes that happen to your heart – the figurative one.

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