Strike a Pose: Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘A Bargain with the Light’

They come from conversations overheard or taken part in, sights, sounds and the other senses, recall, reading, when alone or in company. Poems drop into the growing matrix of all we’ve felt and known. For those who write, it goes on all day long. But only a few land propitiously and work their way into what lies beneath to root and grow. The best of them find earth particularly suited to the nature of the seed and Jacqueline Saphra’s introduction to the highly ekphrastic A Bargain with the Light (Hercules Press, 2017) records just such a moment.

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This exquisitely produced little book also contains a discussion of the model and photographer, Lee Miller, by the academic, Patricia Allmer. Miller emerges from this as a multitude; as object, agent, speaker, spoken of, product and producer – in Allmer’s words a “key female icon of the twentieth century”. And so, in 2016, visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’, Saphra was stopped “in her tracks” by a nude photograph of Miller, taken by her father. Saphra explains: “How could I not be drawn to this extraordinary, wounded woman [. . .] with her huge capacity for creativity, her beauty, her restlessness?” It can take only a moment for both the drawer and the drawn to discover in each other a mutual compatibility.

The poems that arose from Saphra’s fascination with Lee Miller take the form of an heroic crown of sonnets. The form incorporates repeats and revisitings as well as replicating, in its constituent short forms, the brief instantaneous moment of the taken photograph. By coincidence, I’ve used a less strict form of the crown of sonnets recently and, in search of a propulsive, forward movement within the sequence opted not to repeat lines verbatim and also to cut the fifteenth sonnet which repeats many lines once more. But Saphra adheres to the form pretty tightly and in doing so reflects the remarkable recurrences in Miller’s life. Though she finds some evidence of maturation and progress, her chosen form argues against this. The penultimate sonnet declares: “you’re still the same girl who trembled / in the snow wearing only silence”.

This reference is to one of the earliest images of Miller, taken by her father – as a stark naked 7 year old, standing in 2 feet of snow in her home town, Poughkeepsie. It’s an appalling image, but Saphra’s verse derives from it two elements that will recur: the (definitely creepy) power of the father and the fact that Miller is hiding in full (full frontal) sight. ‘Darkroom Lessons’ addresses another naked image of Miller, again taken by her father. But now she is a 20 year old woman. She turns her head aside as if she’s just been struck. For Saphra:

 

You turn and strike a pose.

Once more, you look beyond. This time your face

in profile signals absence. Your skin glows [. . .]

 

Miller’s nakedness demands she hide herself and the gaze from which she hides . . .

 

It’s him

again: the father, tucked behind the lens

sharing his expertise. This is how it starts:

with naked lines and curves; it ends

with lessons in the darkroom. This is art.

 

The euphemistic “lessons in the darkroom” allude to the fact that Miller was sexually abused in childhood – though by a neighbour, rather than her father.

 

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Lee Miller – Self Portrait

By the 1930s Miller had reached Paris, her naked body now proving an inspiration to artists like Man Ray. But Saphra’s poems indicate that while still an object, Miller is becoming more of an agent too: “This is your chance / to know his secrets, so you play his game”. In her compliance, Miller learned much from Man Ray. ‘The Art of Control’ responds to a watershed moment, a self-portrait image from around 1930: “You steal his eye and take both sides: / In front, behind: the seer and the seen”. The poem concludes (quietly, plainly as ever) marking Miller’s bid for an independence and freedom (as woman and artist) that perhaps seemed unlikely:

 

No deal to cut, no tacit threat, no flesh:

Sweetly, you make your bargain with the light,

The only safe transaction. You took this.

Here is your face. Simple. Nothing amiss.

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The sonnet crown demands that this concluding line is repeated as the first line of the subsequent poem. The risk that we might read the line too simplistically and optimistically is reduced when we hear much the same words re-applied to Miller’s 1944 photograph of a French woman accused of collaboration with the Nazis – her head shaved: “Here is your face, simple, nothing amiss”. As in this instance, as the sequence unfolds, more of the sonnets are in the voice of Miller herself. This technical shift marks the artist’s growing self confidence and one of Saphra’s suggestions is evidently that, having suffered much in her youth, she is able to confront head-on the suffering of others. And hence take a great photograph.

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So Miller’s image, ‘The Burgermeister’s daughter’ is of a Nazi woman who has poisoned herself. To take the image, Miller must have got very close. So too with the frightening ‘Beaten SS prison guard’, his goggling eyes and smashed, bloodstained face filling the frame. Miller took it on a visit to the Buchenwald Camp. Saphra makes Miller speak of it:

 

I learned how to escape. How well I hid,

how close I dared to stand. I fix my focus

inches from his face, his eyes clear, the blood

congealing on his skin. If there’s disgust,

I channel it, and if there’s fear, I know

how to burn it, use it for fuel.

 

The sonnet sequence does not unfold strictly chronologically. In the midst of Miller’s war years, there’s a poem in response to an image of a 6 year old Miller with her mother; then there’s another of the whole Miller family in 1911. The strategy here maybe be (reflecting the repetition of the crown form) to suggest how much of the little (abused) girl remained within the confident, female war photographer. But it does give rise to some arid repetition. In one poem Miller tells us “I’ll learn to play both naked and concealed” and in the other we are again reminded, “You learned how to escape. How well you hid”.

 

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Jacqueline Saphra

But how far Miller must have come is suggested by one of the strangest of the images here, the 1943 ‘US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves’. The white uniformed, virginal nurse stands comically surrounded by grasping rubber gloves arrayed on sort of hat-stands to dry. Her figure is grotesquely dwarfed by the grasping and groping that goes on around her. Miller speaks in Saphra’s poem, reflecting on her own inner turmoil:

 

Where are the doctors? When will they begin

to make it better? I watch and wait

as if they’ll find a cure for this malaise,

as if the storm inside can be erased.

 

Though elsewhere, Miller’s voice rings out much more defiantly (“I’ll crash in, braced / to win, dig for mercy, shoot for grace”) it’s the still-troubled “girl who trembled / in the snow” we are left with in sonnet 14. If Miller truly is Allmer’s “female icon” then she is – in Saphra’s treatment of her – one achieving only a pyrrhic victory in the twentieth century gender battles: “You square your shoulders, soldier on”. Yet the poems are all the more moving because of this. The poet’s profound identification with Miller, her deployment of ekphrastic techniques and her clever use of the crown form make for a very satisfying read. It goes without saying that Hercules Press’ production and design is stunning. This is a little book to treasure or – as it’s getting close to Christmas – to give.

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Too Short an Arc: Robert Frost’s ‘A Soldier’

I recently posted a discussion about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’. In this post I’m looking at one of the poems I’ll be teaching next year from the Cambridge International Exam Board’s list of set texts. See page 47 of the Specification. Essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a student’s wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes).

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Robert Frost’s seldom discussed sonnet, ‘A Soldier’, was first published in West-Running Brook (1928). The choice of the indefinite article in the title contrasts immediately with a war poem like Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in which some effort is made to capture an individual voice, a specific occasion for grief. In Frost’s poem, the soldier’s death is rather an opportunity for the poet’s characteristic reflections on life’s limits and freedoms, on boundaries, on the relationship between our place on earth and our aspiration to something else.

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

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On the page, Frost does not divide the structural elements of this broadly Petrarchan sonnet, but it is useful to think of them for the sake of analysis and I refer to quatrains, octet, sestet and volta where relevant. Here’s me reading the poem with the text differently chunked into units of sense.

Line 1 immediately treats the dead soldier to a metaphorical (more strictly metonymic) transformation – he becomes his own weapon. But the kind of dehumanisation suggested by the ‘man=lance’ image does not lead to more obvious themes about loss of individuality in war time. Also why Frost chooses such an archaic weapon as a lance is not clear – perhaps he was thinking of a painting, perhaps he wanted to distance the death from more contemporary images of war (the poem first appeared 14 years after the end of WW1), perhaps he felt it would give him more freedom to explore the symbolism of the death without personal, (distracting?) human entanglements. The opening 3 lines of quatrain 1 (Q1) are as follows:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled,

That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust,

But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

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The repetition of the verb “lies” is striking and emphasises the soldier’s passivity in death and the subsequent stillness of the lance. The adjective “fallen” confirms this idea. The end of line 1 seems to mean something like ‘the lance lies just as/in the way it was hurled’. So the throw was a failure, an ineffective effort, as also suggested in line 3 where we are told it has merely “plowed the dust”. The lance’s metaphorical ploughing of the earth further suggests an ineffective, unfertile, unproductive act. Line 2 reinforces these images of passivity, inaction, ineffectuality, as the lance “lies unlifted” over a length of time (duration suggested by the hesitations of the heavier punctuation in line 2) likely to give rise to both “dew” and “rust”. So this is not an image of death and failure in the heat of the battle; it may indeed be long after. Frost seems more than happy to draw the reader’s mind away from what might be the actual condition of the flesh and blood soldier himself by this stage. His dewy, rusty lance, plugged point first into the earth, stands in for him. This is not a poem of personal grief or lament for a warrior’s lost life. That it ought to have a bit more concern for that theme (to be a bit less exploitative) is one of the reasons why we may find reading the poem an uneasy experience.

Line 4 introduces the plural pronoun and – crossing the unmarked boundary between Q1 and Q2 – we are off into more generalised realms of philosophical speculation.

If we who sight along it round the world,

See nothing worthy to have been its mark,

It is because like men we look too near,

Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere,

Our missiles always make too short an arc.

The image of ‘sighting’ along the lance perhaps re-instates more modern methods of warfare (rifles with sights?) but whether ancient or modern, Frost suggests, in looking for a suitable target or “mark”, we fail, we see “nothing worthy”. This is more hyperbolic than factual perhaps, given that we are sighting along the lance and apparently gazing “round the world”. It’s this latter phrase – its easy familiarity enabling Frost to smuggle it past the reader’s guard against inappropriate pretention – that initiates the poem’s elevation from battle-field incident to generalised speculative discussion about human aspiration and limitation.

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The simile in line 6, comparing the observing “we” to “men” has been noted and criticised by H. A. Maxson (On the Sonnets of Robert Frost (1997)). He objects that the observing “we” are surely “men” (in the sense of human) and so the simile barrenly compares like with like. Maxson suggests Frost intended something like ‘isn’t it just like men’, a sort of frustrated, critical aside (self not excluded) that human beings have very limited powers of observation. Another way of reading the moment may be to emphasis the gender specificity of the reference: is this limit to our sight a specifically male problem?

Of course, it’s not mere shortness of optical sight that is the issue, but a “Forgetting that as fitted to the sphere, / Our missiles always make too short an arc”. The phrase “as fitted to the sphere” works in the same way as “round the world” did earlier. Frost is urging us to forget the battlefield where the poem began; the discussion now is about our place in the world/sphere and how we perceive it or not. Though the use of the word “missiles” does suggest a return to the militaristic, it works as a more generalised allusions to human tools, all carefully “fitted to the sphere” but because of that they/we are unable to contemplate what may lie beyond it. For this reasons our tools, missiles, thought and perceptions all fall short, they “make too short an arc”.

 

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Robert Frost

 

The arc image reminds us of the interim statement in Frost’s ‘Birches’ that the narrator would “like to get away from the earth awhile”. In ‘A Soldier’ the desire for a similar escape is expressed more indirectly in the constriction and thudding physicality beyond the volta, at the opening of the sestet, descriptive of all lances’ fate when limited by human “sight”:

They fall, they rip the grass, they intersect

The curve of earth, and striking, break their own;

They make us cringe for metal-point on stone.

The short phrases, heavy punctuation and repeated 3rd person pronoun as well as the violence of words like “rip”, “striking” and “break” convey Frost’s sense of the tragic, destructive quality of such limited aspiration and vision. There is a double wounding implied as the lances intersect and puncture the earth itself and in doing so “break their own” (curve, I take it).

Frost’s use of the word “cringe” in line 10 is interesting. The root of the word is relevantly related to Old English cringan, crincan to ‘bend, yield or fall in battle’. Its modern meaning is to bend one’s head and body in fear or apprehension or in a servile manner or to experience an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. So our human failure to see or aspire beyond the earth – represented here by the lance’s metal point striking stone – becomes a defeat of sorts, an act of weakness or servility, at least of embarrassment or disgust at our own inadequacy. It is as if the birch swinger in Frost’s other poem has no other option but to remain in his despondent state, “weary of considerations”:

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

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It’s at this point the birch swinger expresses the wish to “get away” from earth by climbing the tree and swinging on it. But this is no simple, one-way,  transcendent wishfulness. In ‘Birches’ the narrator always intends to come back to earth and “begin over” because – in two of Frost’s most moving lines – “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

‘A Soldier’ lacks the uplift (for reader) and complicating paradoxes of ‘Birches’. The sonnet dwells long and hard on our limitations, our poor aim and aimlessness, the burns, tickles and cobwebs. But the sestet ends in a declarative mode, not typical of Frost who works more usually via hints and guesses.

But this we know, the obstacle that checked

And tripped the body, shot the spirit on

Further than target ever showed or shone.

The “obstacle” here is the earth, plugging the lance, tripping the soldier himself, a pratfall in the obstinate materiality of the world. But Frost’s plainly concluding tone is now undermined by a more characteristic paradox in what has tripped the soldier’s body is precisely what also shoots his “spirit” beyond the merely everyday. The sonnet’s final line suggests the apparently unworthy “mark” of line 5 (now referred to as a “target”) has indeed been transcended towards something “Further”. Frost’s final phrase, overly pushy and hyperbolic, overly alliterative, the rhyming couplet also raising the poetic stakes a bit too high, strikes me as vacuous, its faux shimmer and shine propelled more by wishful thinking than precision of thought. Of course, what Frost intends to say – something about the generative tensions that exist between matter and spirit – may well be inexpressible but in poems like ‘Birches’, ‘Mowing’ and ‘After Apple-Picking’ he gets closer to it than he does in the confines of this sonnet.

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What Have I Been Reading: July – September 2015

Up-dated September 2015

Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets is certainly a varied selection of the form (it strikes me it would be a good, coherent text for students to study). The editor is never short of an opinion, ranging from the good sense of “Academics, in particular, have talked an awful lot of rubbish on the subject of rhyme” to the much more questionable “the whole point of [a] poem – that it should lodge itself permanently in our brains”

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That the novelist Ursula K Le Guin should be a fan and translator of Lao Tzu’s 81 ancient poems/chapters known as the Tao Te Ching is perhaps less surprising than the fact that her translation is one of the most enjoyable around (and I’ve been reading plenty of them in preparation for my version’s appearance next Spring).

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Two chunky collecteds have been pre-occupying me in the last month or so. Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems is – by the nature of his aesthetic perhaps – uneven, but almost every page turns up new ways of writing and reading poetry: an invigorating pleasure.

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I have blogged on Bertolt Brecht’s Poems 1913-1956 before – in more recent weeks I have been tracking him out of Germany, to Denmark and hence to the USA. Extraordinary how contemporary most of these poems feel, though already 60 plus years old.

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Updated August 2015

John Greening’s anthology of poems about music, Accompanied Voices (Boydell & Brewer),  is a lovely thing, full of variety, full of poems to be re-acquainted with from Hill, Hughes, Longley and Porter and brand new contemporary work including Stainer, Allnutt, O’Donoghue, Reid, Rumens, Shuttle and Greening’s own little gem on John Field (being walked all over by Chopin).

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I tweeted a couple of weeks ago that I found Carolyn Forche’s second collection, The Country Between Us (HarperPerennial, 1982) in a Highgate secondhand bookshop and having raced through the poems before going away I’m now keen to get back to them for a more reflective read.

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Tim Liardet’s poem-sequence of self-portraits, The World before Snow (Carcanet) is actually motivated and (to some degree evokes) an illicit trans-Atlantic affair. The poems have the density and intensity of Liardet’s previous work with an even greater fertility and fluency of imagination.

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On Narrowness, Claire Crowther’s third collection from Shearsman is a chewy, twisting, sometimes vertiginous read; that’s another way of saying I don’t know what’s going on half the time. But the poems are confident in themselves and leap boldly from one image to another.

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Up-dated July 2015

I find Yves Bonnefoy’s writing unfailingly nutritious though sometimes wonder if his ideas are at least as exciting as the classically restrained lexis of his verse. Beverley Bie Brahic’s 2013 translation of The Present Hour (2011) has Bonnefoy in sonnet-shaped Wordsworthian mood recalling his childhood, writing enigmatic prose pieces and a thought-provoking (because not always easy to follow) essay, ‘In a Piece of Broken Mirror’, once again discussing image, dream, reality and language.

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Perhaps is Alan Murray’s Acumen chapbook from 2013 and it quotes Nietzsche’s observation that the word ‘I’ is the point at which our ignorance begins and several poems do press at the boundaries and mysteries of the self. Murray is a philosopher as well as poet and his colloquial, skilfully turned verse sounds Larkinesque in its precision and equivocations. Great to read poems unafraid of complex ideas.

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Sheenagh Pugh’s 12th book leaves Cardiff and Wales for the Shetland Islands. Wide skies, rough oceans, bright stars. But I share her obsession with the passage of time and there are some powerful poems here, though I find her historical delvings less enjoyable.

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Collette Bryce’s ultra-brief outing (from 2014) into her childhood growing up in Derry during the Troubles is an object lesson in how to focus a collection (just 30 poems). She writes plain, rather withdrawn poems, but this seems right for the material which is therefore allowed to speak for itself.

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George Herbert’s ‘Prayer 1’

Herbert, Brodsky, Rilke, Weil . . . Having read John Drury’s excellent biography of George Herbert, ‘Music at Midnight’, a while back, I was re-reading the poem Prayer (I). The poem is really a list of images of prayer, multiple perspectives, full of vigorous relish and un-churchy energy.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

The whole poem is one sentence, rushing across line breaks and quatrains to herald prayer as a feast, an inversion of inspiration, a precis of our spiritual self, holy journey, a measuring or plumbing not of depth but height –

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

The scale roughly switches to the power of prayer here – Herbert’s religion is bracing and unsentimental – militaristic images and thunder (again reversed in direction – all things come from God but prayer is our chance to respond), even a wounding of Christ. The ambiguity of ‘transposing’ (transfiguring, translating, transcending) leads Herbert to the quieter image of prayer as a cosmic music.

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

The third line of Q3, balanced around the caesura, captures the role of prayer as go-between, conduit, glue between the height of heaven and the fallen state of man – the former leaning sympathetically down towards the ordinary, the latter aspiring to our best. The four phrases of the concluding couplet are marked by speed, a testing of the elasticity of the reader’s imagination (the ‘land of spices’ perhaps the least successful of the poem’s images), and the extraordinary understatement of the two last words.

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

What the poem has done is prepare the ground for what ought to strike as inadequate vagueness, but what here reads as fullness, a plenitude which encompasses all that has gone before and gestures towards more, far more, the entire creation. ‘Understood’ has also been broken free of its moorings to suggest far more than an intellectual grasp – perhaps a literal under-standing or underpinning of our place in creation. Brodsky says poetry accelerates our minds; here, the reader does not need to share Herbert’s religious views to experience the graceful jemmying open of our mind by the poem. Prayer in a secular age is Rilke’s praising; it is as Simone Weil thought, “absolutely unmixed attention”, a rich mindfulness.