2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Stephen Sexton’s ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus) – reviewed here.

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

This year’s Forward First Collection shortlist is astonishingly good but, for its cleverness, its ambition and coherence, its technical mastery and above all for its vulnerability in dealing with the eternal themes of childhood, love and loss, death, time and memory, I hope Stephen Sexton’s book wins the award in October. It’s a curious read in some ways – superficially fast and easy, its technical brilliance well hidden, its narrative quite buried though not really hard to trace, its emotional heft at times blunt and utterly naked, at others complex and many-layered.

Halfway through the book, in ‘Forest of Illusion 2’, Sexton recalls fishing for rainbow trout with some success. The bait is taken and “with a flick / of the wrist [he] hoisted the fish from one world and into the next”. It’s this kind of transition that is the subject of the whole book though the direction of travel is clearer in the recurrent images of young Icarus. The boy who thought he could fly near the sun (filtered through Breughel and then through Auden) is aptly evoked in this poetic bildungsroman of a boy struggling with the traumatic transition from innocence to experience.

The book’s title is the opening line of Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’ in which the Nymph rejects her suitor’s optimistically seductive blandishments:

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

But Sexton’s particular withering is not one of romantic love but the loss of a mother to cancer and by the end of the book, the wriggle room implied by Ralegh’s opening word, ‘If’, is significantly altered to the much more brutal ‘when’. This is no hypothetical idyll but an actual, remembered one and the loss of it is unavoidable. The post-conclusion, coda-poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, turns upon the reader with a compassionate yet clear warning: “some day dear friend [you will find] my sad head upon on your shoulders” (sic).

Sexton has written a genuine, contemporary long poem (not a long assemblage of lyrics). His lines are 16 syllables in length throughout, yielding a prosy, chatty, fluid sort of voice which avoids the risk of drag by keeping the reader on our toes by a relative absence of punctuation and a penchant for eliding two thoughts or images together in one single line. This generates occasional moments of misreading, but it is also the technical reflection of Sexton’s focus on the translation of innocence into the darkening of experience. The heard voice is quick, erudite and briskly allusive; despite being mostly in the present tense, it is not wholly the naïve voice of the child. The other aspect of the whole poem this fluid transitioning relates to is the exploration of the child’s obsession with the fantasy world of his computer games and the way he must slide from one world (on a screen) to the one we call ‘real’.

The computer games are specifically the Nintendo games of the 1990s which give the sections their odd names – Yoshi’s Island, Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome, Valley of Bowser – and account for individual poems’ titles, some of which I have already referred to. The games may be out of date but Sexton’s evident knowledge of them (love of them) means part of the originality of this book is they are fully integrated into the composition of the poems and raise questions about how absorbing such fantasy worlds can be and how the facts of reality are to be negotiated and reconciled successfully (perhaps, particularly by boys who seem so drawn to the former and so easily in denial about the latter).

Sexton’s own story is given in a Note and the poem called ‘Yoshi’s Island 1’. In the summer of 1998, his mother took a photograph of him, back to the camera, squatting before a TV, the family garden just glimpsed out of a window to the left. Here already, the screen world and the outside world through the window are juxtaposed. The boy is keener on the former:

Here spotted mountain and cirrus here sloping plateaux drawn down

carnivorous plants and no sun gold by the cherish underground

fly agaric throbs everywhere with fire plants and dinosaurs.

The vivid, colourful, playful and safe fantasy worlds of Nintendo – its caricatures, its rules – is one of escape:

On Kappa Mountain past the great lake circumscribed with goldenrod

the abandoned palace is full of treasure glowing underground

in granaries and arsenals and economy of losses

and gains the beloved is gone but there is always the story.

 

The man looking back at his younger self passes judgement: “one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass”. But this shallowness is immediately challenged when the child is told of his mother’s illness, of “cells which split and glitch”. The following poem has thoughts of his (real) father interrupting (if only for one line) in his screen time:

. . . for the first time in some time I thought of our father at home

the Sirocco in from the south turtle doves in the huge wheat fields

‘#1 Iggy’s Castle’ suggests the same thing: in the midst of oceans of lava, fantastical islands and cartoonish incinerations, the boy hears his mother moving about the house, a woman in real pain, “whose feet whose toes / whose hands whose fingers whose ankles whose head she says are on fire”.

Within 20 pages or so, a poem appears which resides wholly in the ‘real’ world of a family visit to the Ulster Hospital and a visit to McDonald’s since his mother “has lost her sense of taste”. The narrative suggests there follows a period of respite. The doctors – in the boy’s mind they come and go as wizard-like Merlins “in blue scrubs” – remove the cancer. Though back at home his mother remains weak and unsteady so the boy concocts a “mess in a tray” for the school bake sale. In awkward self-defence, he acknowledges, “No one is going to like this [. . .] but I have done my best”. His observation obviously has a far wider application in the circumstances, and one of Sexton’s great achievements in the poem – in amongst the allusiveness and technical skill – is to be as open and vulnerable as this. In ‘#5 Roy’s Castle’ he recalls his mother working “her old-fashioned Singer”. Roy Orbison is on the radio. She is making curtains for the room “she’ll in future return to” when she has become ill. The way time collapses in on itself in such a Wordsworthian ‘spot of time’, the way in which “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”, is expressed with devastating simplicity: “the sewing machine ticks so fast these small years go by in minutes”.

But the cancer has returned. ‘Choco-Ghost House’ is unique in that we hear Sexton’s mother’s voice, nervously complaining of a “pain in my side like a bird in a holly tree”. Her son, still half inhabiting his fantasy world of wizards and exotic settings, is perhaps now starting to use that experience to get a handle on what is really happening. The doctor – now a “Hippocrates” figure – is described as going about “the magic task / of grinding down a rhino’s horn to infuse with ground down rubies”. Even these sorts of quasi-defensive imaginings are eventually dropped and the bald reportage of a last hospital bedside conversation between mother and child is almost too painful to read. The long syllabic lines here have room for the hesitations and repetitions of such emotionally-charged moments without any ironic distancing:

It’s me I’m here is what I say but I am not since she is not.

Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night

and I say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.

The sequence ends with the longest poem in the book – still barely the length of a page – which recounts the mother’s return home in her coffin. Even here the young boy blurs the arrival of the “wood panelled box” with the arrival of the “sharp-cornered TV” before which he has so often squatted to play his Nintendo games. Penguin’s blurb talks of the poem ultimately suggesting “the necessity of the unreal” but actually we see the child fighting his way free of it. Halfway through this final poem, the revelation comes in a fluid, unpunctuated instant: “I felt my head turn into stone no it wasn’t the old TV”. It’s in this poem that Sexton alludes to the title of his book. Hedged around with the necessary qualifications imposed by the passage of years, by the unreliability of human memory, the cloaking device of powerful emotion, he recalls a childhood safe and secure in the light of his mother’s presence, the flashlight of her camera behind him, before him the vibrant, simple colours of Nintendo:

[. . .] her voice moves around the edge of the world and now I think I

remember what I mean to say which is only to say that once

when all the world and love was young I saw it beautiful glowing

once in the corner of the room once I was sitting in its light.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Jay Bernard’s ‘Surge’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins) – reviewed here.

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Jay Bernard’s Surge is a slim volume carrying with it a great deal of political as well as publishing history. Its early stirrings seem to have been Bernard’s residency at the George Padmore Institute in north London where they explored documents relating to the New Cross Fire in January 1981. Often dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, thirteen young people died in a fire at a birthday party. The fire may have been racially motivated arson and certainly the authorities’ response to the incident was unconvincing, possibly obstructive. There is a direct line from this incident, through the imposition of SUS laws and ‘stop and search’ in South London and the SWAMP 81 police crackdown and the subsequent, so-called Brixton Riots of April 1981. The Scarman Report in November of that year laid the blame for the riots squarely on the police action. In our contemporary landscape, and especially after the Grenfell Tower fire and the still-unresolved shameful treatment of the Windrush Generation, it’s easy to see why Bernard wanted to write about New Cross.

new-cross-fire-houseBut Surge itself has since gone through various forms. There were 10 original poems written quickly in 2016. There was a performance piece (at London’s Roundhouse) in the summer of 2017 (it was this version that won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in poetry in 2017). But it has taken 3 years for this Chatto book to be finalised. In an interview just last year, Bernard observed that they were still unclear what the “final structure” of the material would be. I’m possessed of no insider knowledge on this, but it looks as if this “final” version took some considerable effort – reading it makes me conscious of the strait-jacket that a conventional slim volume of poetry imposes – and I’m not sure the finalised 50-odd pages of the collection really act as the best foil for what are, without doubt, a series of stunningly powerful poems. The blurb and publicity present the book (as publishers so often do) as wholly focused on the New Cross and Grenfell fires but this isn’t really true and something is lost in including the more miscellaneous pieces, particularly towards the end of the book.

Bernard writes of events in the past by deploying a multiplicity of voices which are given the power to haunt backwards and forwards through historical time. Unusually, their own voice is heard in ‘Ark’. They are here searching through an archive of documents of “flaking Letraset and amber glue” that also (punningly) acts as an ‘ark’ to bring the dead back to the present. What preoccupies the narrator is how and where to “file / the damp smoke and young bones” of the New Cross victims. The conclusion seems to be they cannot be securely and finally located anywhere while the country still experiences “the burning house, the child made ash, the brick in the back / of the neck, the shit in the letter box and piss up the side of it”.

memorial2Bernard’s poetic voice is at its best when making full use of the licence of free forms, broken grammar, infrequent punctuation, the colloquial voice and often incantatory patois. So a voice in ‘Harbour’ wanders across the page, hesitantly, uncertainly, till images of heat, choking and breaking glass make it clear this is someone caught in the New Cross Fire. Another voice in ‘Clearing’ watches, in the aftermath of the blaze, as an officer collect body parts (including the voice’s own body): “from the bag I watch his face turn away”. The cryptically titled ‘+’ and ‘–’ shift to broken, dialogic prose as a father is asked to identify his dead son through the clothes he was wearing. Then the son’s voice cries out for and watches his father come to the morgue to identify his body. This skilful voice throwing is a vivid way of portraying a variety of individuals and their grief. ‘Kitchen’ offers a calmer voice re-visiting her mother’s house, the details and familiarity evoking simple things that have been lost in the death of the child:

I have held this house

in my arms and let it sob

on the bathroom floor, heard it in

the background of a call,

heard it speak a kind of love –

A vigorously rhythmic patois voice is used in ‘Songbook’, recycling the horrific narrative again as a young boy and girl dance happily until:

Me seh di heat ah di night ah come up thru di floor

Black smoke ah rise tho dem nevah did know

[. . .]

Gyal fall back inside an we no see her no more

No bright green dress up pon di third floor

Bernard acknowledges their debt here to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s earlier poem about the New Cross Fire; you must listen to Bernard give a mesmerising performance of their own great poem here.

linton-kwesi-johnson-golden-penI’m guessing most of the poems I have referred to so far come from the early work of 2016. Other really strong pieces focus on events after the Fire itself. ‘Duppy’ is a sustained description – information slowly drip-fed – of a funeral or memorial meeting and it again becomes clear that the narrative voice is one of the dead: “No-one will tell me      what happened to my body”. The title of the poem is a Jamaican word of African origin meaning spirit or ghost. ‘Stone’ is perhaps a rare recurrence of the author’s more autobiographical voice and in its scattered form and absence of punctuation reveals a tactful and beautiful lyrical gift as the narrator visits Fordham Park to sit beside the New Cross Fire’s memorial stone. ‘Songbook II’ is another chanted, hypnotic tribute to one of the mothers of the dead and is probably one of the poems Ali Smith is thinking of when she associates Bernard’s work with that of W.H. Auden.

104-artontheunderground-14jan14But when the device of haunting and haunted voices is abandoned, Bernard’s work drifts quickly towards the literal and succumbs to the pressure to record events and places (the downside of the archival instinct). A tribute to Naomi Hersi, a black trans-woman found murdered in 2018, sadly doesn’t get much beyond plain location, a kind of reportage and admission that it is difficult to articulate feelings (‘Pem-People’). There are interesting pieces which read as autobiography – a childhood holiday in Jamaica, joining a Pride march, a sexual encounter in Camberwell, but on their own behalf Bernard seems curiously to have lost their eagle eye for the selection of telling details and tone and tension flatten out:

The bus heaves past Loughborough, to Camberwell,

to the green, buzzing with students drunk on Friday,

drunk on art and trendy and young: wine bottle young,

rollie-young, tight, flat-chested young. I follow you down,

I follow you up to the stairs of your flat [. . .]

grenfell-the-sunThe mirroring architectonic of the collection emerges with the poems written about the Grenfell Tower fire. So we have ‘Ark II’, two pools of prose broken by slashes which seem to be fed by too many tributary streams: the silent marches in Ladbroke grove, the Michael Smithyman murder and abandoned investigation, Smithyman’s transition to Michelle, and the burning of the Grenfell Tower effigy, the video of which emerged in 2018.

In an earlier blog post I was thinking about “the (in)adequacy of a certain English poetic voice to confront the scale of ecological issues, or as a vehicle for expressing certain cultural differences, or as a way of exploring the kind of tragic and grievous event represented by the Grenfell fire and its aftermath”. I think Bernard offers answers to this sort of question in their New Cross Fire poems but the challenge of Grenfell (is it the lack of historical distance?) does not yield the same sort of success. The final poem in the book, ‘Flowers’ is a case in point. Each quatrain carries a rhetorical question, creating a formal rather than urgent or passionate impression, and the valid question is will “anybody speak of” the kinds of issues raised elsewhere in the book. Yet the canonic imagery invokes the speech of flowers, the transition from summer into winter (done much more effectively in ‘Stone’). In the context of a live reading, in the context of the horror, the grief, the injustices, the historical perspectives raised so very successfully elsewhere in Surge, I’m sure this sort of poem has an impact. But in the cold light of day, Bernard’s voice here sounds confined by expectations they ought to be ignoring and ends by giving a rather awkward performance – especially when it’s compared to the fluid, passionate, skilful, clever, eloquence of something like ‘Songbook’.

Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ – a new translation

Two weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. Last week I blogged part of this talk, looking at the poem, ‘Reyerta’, alongside my new translation of it. I confessed then, I have always found Lorca’s poems difficult to work on – though they are superficially both alluring to the translator and seemingly straightforward – though, in what I said last week and in what follows, I hope to show I have made some headway with them over the years. Here, I am discussing Lorca’s well-known poem (also from the Gypsy Ballads collection) called ‘Romancero sonambulo’ or, as it is usually translated into English, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. My full translation of the poem appears at the end of the post (an earlier version of it was published in the magazine Dream Catcher).

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Later in the lecture about the Gypsy Ballads that I referred to in my earlier post, Lorca talks about other aspects of the style of these poems. He says ballads have always depended on narrative – if the ballad poet veers too far towards the lyrical, without an echo of the anecdotal, the result is not a ballad but a song. Lorca was consciously looking “to fuse the narrative ballad with the lyrical without altering the qualities of either”. And he believed he had achieved this especially in the poem, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. As he says of it, the poem provides the sense of an anecdote within a very dramatic atmosphere, but this lyrical ballad is also marinated in the most amazing atmosphere of mystery. A mystery that even he, the author, would not penetrate. It opens:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things are watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

.
images

As narrative this is mysteriously brilliant and brilliantly mysterious. Unlike ‘Reyerta’ the narrative voice is expressive through the technique of repetition – 10 ‘greens’ in the opening 13 lines – suggesting an obsessive love or fascination with the colour green which seems immediately linked to a woman. The balance of the mystery is achieved with the first references suggesting fertility and fecundity, but later ones a rather queasy, uneasy discoloration of flesh and hair. The word ‘green’ almost becomes the woman’s name – “I love you green”. She is the focus of “all things”. As yet, we don’t know why she might not be aware of their gaze. The images of the ship on the sea and the horse on the mountain do little more than extend the horizon of the poem – they suggest this is more ballad than love song. There is a specific context – and, as we’ll see, it’s an important one.

1200px-Agave_americana_R01The next section of the poem displays some of Lorca’s startling, surprising images: the “stars of frost”, the “fish of shadows”, the fig-tree’s “sandpaper branches”, the mountain is a “a thieving cat” that “bristles its sour agaves”. These are good examples of Lorca’s technique with metaphor: to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality. But these lines are perhaps really more about raising the narrative tensions in the poem through rhetorical questions such as, “But who will come? And where from?”

Making things no clearer, there follows a section of dialogue, apparently between the house owner and a young man, who is perhaps on the run from the authorities as he is “blood-stained from the Cabran passes”. The young man says what he seeks now is domesticity, to settle down – to exchange horse for home, saddle for mirror, knife for blanket. But the house owner cannot oblige. Not because he does not wish to, but because he cannot. Cryptically, he says “I am no more as I am, / nor is my home my home”. Only later do we (perhaps) understand his utterly compromised position.

It turns out the blood-stained youth is really hurt, from chest to chin. Another of Lorca’s great images: “Three hundred dark roses / spatter your white shirt. / All round your belt / the blood reeks and oozes”. What the two men do agree to do (though the reason for this is not obvious) is to climb to the top of the house – here I imagine a flat roof with balustrades. Here the colour green returns (paint, twilight, treetops?) and a daubing of romantic moonlight. But also – and how ominously we have yet to learn – they begin to hear the sound of water.

downloadSo up they climb. We don’t know why, but the atmosphere here is dripping with ill omen: they are “leaving a trail of blood, / leaving a trail of tears”. Then there is another of Lorca’s images yoking together unlikely items. As they climb to the roof-tiles, there is a trembling or quivering of “tiny tin-plate lanterns” and perhaps it’s this that becomes the sound of a “thousand crystal tambourines / [that] wound the break of day”. Lorca himself chose this image to comment on in his talk. He says if you ask why he wrote it he would tell you: “I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more; certainly I cannot explain their meaning”. I hear Andre Breton there, or Dali refusing to ‘explain’ the images of the truly surreal work. In each case the interpretative labour is handed over to us.

The reason for the climb to the roof-top perhaps only now becomes clearer. One of the men – I take it to be the house owner addressing the youth – asks where his girl is, a girl who used to wait for him on the roof top: “fresh-faced, her black hair, / on the green balustrade!” So the rooftop was one of the lovers’ meeting places. Then there’s another of Lorca’s jump-cuts of overwhelming drama. Up on the roof, as they reach it, over a rain-water tank, hangs a body:

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

W-I-handrailDid they know this? It appears not. But who is she? Daughter? Lover? Both? Is this really what the two men find there? For sure, there is some mystery about the chronology because the seeming explanation of the killing is couched as a flashback: “The dark night grew intimate / as a cramped little square. / Drunken Civil Guards / were hammering at the door”. But Lorca often plays fast and loose with verb tenses. Was this earlier? Were they in search of the rebellious youth? But they found his girl-friend? Hanging her on the rooftop? Is the house owner her father? Does he know what has happened? Is this why his house is not his own anymore? Is this why he is no more what he was?
icarusThe only certain thing is that the poem does not reply. It ends with a recurrence of that opening yearning – now it’s read as a more obviously grieving voice – though it’s not necessarily to be read as the young man’s voice. It’s the ballad voice, the one I took so long to really grasp in Lorca’s work. It is a voice involved and passionate but with wider geographical, political and historical horizons beyond the individual incident. Like Auden’s ploughman in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, glimpsing Icarus’ fall from the sky, yet he must get on with his work, ‘Sleepingwalking Ballad’ returns us in its final lines to the wider world:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

In passing, the poem refers to the dead girl as a ‘gypsy’. By gypsy, Lorca said he intended to allude to Andalucia itself, because “the gypsy is the loftiest, most profound and aristocratic element of my country, the most deeply representative”. So there’s certainly a political element to the poem, but that’s an aspect I’ve no time to explore here.

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Here is the complete text of my translation:

 

Sleepwalking Ballad

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

 

Green how I love you green.

Great stars of frost appear

beside the fish of shadows,

making way for sunrise.

A fig-tree scuffs the breeze

with sandpaper branches.

The mountain, a thieving cat,

bristles its sour agaves.

But who will come? And where from?

Still she’s at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green,

dreaming of the bitter sea.

 

“Friend, I would love to change

my horse for your home,

my saddle for your mirror,

my knife for your blanket.

Friend, blood-stained I come

from the Cabran passes.”

“Young man, if I were able,

I’d seal this bargain.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“Friend, I would love to die

so decently in my bed.

Steel-framed it would be

with sheets of fine linen.

But you see this wound

running from chest to chin?”

“Three hundred dark roses

spatter your white shirt.

All round your belt

the blood reeks and oozes.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“At least then let me climb

to the high balustrades.

Let me climb! Oh, let me

reach the green balustrades,

the handrails of the moon,

where the water’s echoing.”

 

So two friends climb

toward the high balustrades,

leaving a trail of blood,

leaving a trail of tears.

A quivering of the roof-tiles’

tiny tin-plate lanterns.

A thousand crystal tambourines

to wound the break of day.

 

Green how I love you green,

green wind, green branches.

Two friends, now they climb,

with the slow wind leaving

a strange taste in the mouth

of bile, mint and basil.

“My friend! Where is she, say?

Where is your bitter girl?

How often she’d wait for you!

How often she’d wait for you,

fresh-faced, her black hair,

on the green balustrade!”

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

The dark night grew intimate

as a cramped little square.

Drunken Civil Guards

were hammering at the door.

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

 

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Kaveh Akbar

This is the fifth (and last) in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer of books chosen for the 2018 Forward Prize Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book.
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

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More than most, Kaveh Akbar’s poems read like jointed assemblages of seemingly disparate materials – accumulations, aggregations, medleys, jumbles. Over 91 pages, some work better than others, but on first reading there is such energy, honesty and commitment on show that it’s easy to be swept away. After a while, you begin to think that most of the poems seem cut from a very similar cloth. Amazingly, despite the inventiveness in imagery, the experimentation in form, the mix of cultures (Akbar is Iranian born, now living in the US), a paradoxical same-iness begins to set in and each time I read the book I find myself flagging about half way through.

item_XL_10301052_31669501Akbar doesn’t generally do the more familiar, simply focused poem. There are a few in the book like ‘Learning to Pray’, in scattered unrhymed triplets, in which a young boy (Akbar allows a straight autobiographical reading usually) watches his father pray, “kneeling on a janamaz” or prayer mat. The wish to emulate the admired father is conveyed pin-sharp. A later poem also starts from childhood and (mostly in loose unrhymed couplets) traces the boy’s later maturing in an America “filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” (‘Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)’). This poem also attracts threads of two of Akbar’s other main themes: his personal addictions and the ubiquitous sense of living in a fallen world.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of a fall is very powerful and Akbar is often to be found addressing, berating or pleading with a God figure. To this extent there is a religious element to many of Akbar’s poems, but it feels more like Rilke’s address and concern for the angels in the Duino Elegies, for example, where their actual existence is to be doubted though their impact on the way we regard and live out our own lives is profound. Akbar’s opening poem declares God sometimes visits us, “disguised as rust” (‘Soot’). God’s imagined proximity then breeds new perspectives on our own existence, including images of the Heaven from which we must have fallen: “Upon landing, the ground / embraced me sadly, with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child”. ‘Recovery’ is also resigned to seeing life as it is really lived as “graceless” and the poem ‘God’ – before it really gets motoring with its examples of economic decline, personal illness, futile work and sense of fear – cries out: “I am ready for you to come back [. . .] / you are needed again”. Once more the mythic paradise is alluded to towards the end of the poem – simply as something that seemed promised yet is signally lacking in this world, so that “I will settle for anything that brings you now”.

three-empty-beer-bottles-pile-16804845One of the main elements of this fallen state (again Akbar allows a simple autobiographical interpretation) is the damage caused by his past addictions, especially to alcohol. This is the main hook Penguin hang the book on (a cover of empty beer bottles, for example). Poems styled ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic …’ recur throughout the book, but the first section is most focused on this. A familiar comment from W.H. Auden is used to firmly yoke spirit to bottle: “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation”. Many of the poems then have this sense of inebriation, muddling, confusion which Akbar’s style of writing is very at home with. ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly’ presents the drinker waking up, seemingly attacked by a home invader with a knife. Memories of keeping a housefly on a string intervene, perhaps because in the fly’s death the young boy confronted the idea of death: “I opened myself to death, the way a fallen tree // opens itself to the wild”. The poem returns to the threatening situation, then to more abstract thoughts of scale, a TV programme and the speaker passively returns to sleep. This is a great poem of the self as both endangered and paranoid, distanced from danger, the blurring of perception, thought and memory.

The title poem of the book seems to follow the alcoholic as an in-patient, this time in broken up prose. Thoughts meander again till they find a foothold in the self-recognition that “I answered every cry for help with a pour”. He sees this as a coldness, a turning away and tries to name it and therefore control it better: “if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But rather than effective combat the wolf has become evermore part of the alcoholic, like two coins on a train track crushed together. ‘Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before’ likewise takes the reader into the addict’s mind, the thrill-searching (“I don’t / have drunks, sirs, I have adventures”), the sense of life as boredom without the booze (“we live / on an enormous flatness”). These poems are certainly – as a blurb quote suggests – additions to the “canon of addiction literature”.

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Though Akbar’s choices of form in the book are legion and each one works well enough (which is impressive in itself), form and content don’t always seem inevitably linked. What so many of the poems do have is a forward propulsion which is quite breath-taking, assisted by the frequent absence of punctuation. There is a frenetic restlessness, often matched by leaps of imagery close to the surreal (interestingly one of the poets acknowledged by Akbar is Tomaz Salamun). But I worry there is something close to programmatic about all this. Poems often draw together threads of philosophical musing (several from Rumi), then mix in (tangential) aphoristic-sounding or plain informational statements, then throw in what will be read as direct autobiographical elements. These various constituents are sequenced alongside each other and Akbar’s formal and linguistic energy (like the “old battery” delivering jolts in ‘An Apology’) whirls them round before the reader. In the best poems, there is a strong centrifugal force holding the parts together; in others they are simply spun apart and the reader ends wondering about coherence and consequence.

Texas-early-26But when it works, these are marvellous poems – and, for my money, this book would make a worthy winner of the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize. ‘Wild Pear Tree’ – as if in one breath – conveys a wintry scene/mental state, recalls halcyon days (of spring) and ends lamenting the forgetting of an “easy prayer” intended for emergencies: “something something I was not / born here I was not born here I was not”. ‘Exciting the Canvas’ is much more risky in its jig-sawing together of disparate elements – a bit of Rumi, the sea, a child’s drawing, a drunken accident, the Model T Ford, crickets, snakes – but somehow manages to hold it all together to make a snap-shot of a troubled, curious, still-open consciousness. And finally, ‘So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction’, dallies with the Rilkean idea of dying young, alludes to recovery from addiction, then grasshoppers, ice-cubes, personal ambitions and the self-image of “rosejuice and wonderdrunk” (which is merely one side of Akbar’s work). This one ends with the not-infrequent trope of a re-birth from burial in the earth. I like these images, suggesting that, for all the fretting about lost paradise, the absence of God, the self-destructiveness of the individual, whatever redemptive re-birth may be possible is only likely to come from our closeness and attentiveness to things about us, an eschewing of the “self-love” Akbar struggles to free himself from in ‘Prayer’: in a lovely phrase –though I’m still figuring it – he concludes, “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”.

Flowers of Lime: Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘Selected Poems’

Surely we all have one or two Faber anthologies edited by Geoffrey Grigson on our shelves? Love Poems, Popular Verse, Reflective Verse, Nonsense Verse, Poems and Places, Epigrams and Epitaphs . . . As a critic he often wielded a savage power through his magazine New Verse. And as a big beast on the literary scene of the early 1980s, Hermione Lee interviewed him on Channel 4. But since his death in 1985, he’s better known merely as the husband of Jane Grigson, the celebrated cookery writer. His own poetry has been wholly neglected which makes John Greening’s new Selected Poems from Greenwich Exchange a welcome opportunity to re-consider it. I think Grigson’s contrasting themes were established early on. The influence of two great poets (not Eliot, not Yeats) is clear from the start and it may be that the limits of Grigson’s poetic achievement and the absence of much development in his style, are because he never chose one path or fully escaped either.

 

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The influence of Auden is very clear in Grigson’s first collection, Several Observations (1939). ‘Meeting by the Gjulika Meadow’ presents an enigmatic narrative in a “frontier” landscape; a meeting between two men whose conversation is in large part concerned with “the thunder / about Europe”. There are sketched fragments of personal dependencies and guilts but the whole reads as a slice of narrative that has been carefully shorn of its explicatory elements. A poem from 1946 shows Grigson using similar methods but on matters much closer to home; ‘In a Dark Passage’ draws material from the deaths of two of Grigson’s brothers in WW1 and the early death of his first wife, Frances. The situations are still relatively distanced by being told in the third person and the timings of the incidents are compressed to form a litany of heartfelt if rhetorical griefs: “O floes of ice, you float downstream / But do not disappear”.

There is certainly a very dark river running through Grigson’s work. ‘Two A.M.’, from the 1970s, records a wakefulness at night filled – as so often – by nothing but questions: “all emptiness, all gravity, / Ultimacy, nothingness”. He captures vividly the way this kind of mood, at such an hour, insists on expanding exponentially, racing to fill the world’s “Sierras, monadnocks, lakes, prairies, taiga, ice”. On this occasion, there is the possibility of an erotic reply: “At least now, with our bodies close, / Be comforted”. But even that response is absent from ‘Again Discard the Night’ from the 1980 collection, History of Him. Written as a first person narrative this time, the poem pulls no punches in its flinty and unforgiving portrait of old age waking:

 

… you call, the kettle gathers

And talks, and Are you all right? comes your

 

Usual cry, and my habit insists, without sound, Reply,

Be bright, wash, shave, dress, and this once,

Again discard the night.

 

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Of course, Grigson’s sense of an ungoverned and likely meaningless universe matched with his frequent backward glances also calls to mind Hardy’s work. One of Grigson’s earliest poems, ‘The Children’, has an 11-line stanza of complex rhyme patterning that Hardy would have been proud of. The children are portrayed as playing in a natural environment and in a state of temporal innocence: “They looked for no clocks, noticed no hours”. But ending each stanza, the triple rhyme words with “hours” are (ambiguously) “sours” and “flowers”. Between the third and fourth stanza, there is the kind leap in time often found in folk songs. We have instantaneously passed many years: “The rooms were pulled down, but they always abide / In the minds of the children born in them”. These are the best lines in the poem with the much cooler closing lines for me falling flat:

 

They see the clocks and notice the hour

And aware that restriction of love turns sour,

They feel the cold wind and consider the flower.

 

It is certainly Hardy that Grigson is thinking of in ‘In View of the Fleet’. The Fleet is the lagoon behind Chesil Beach in Dorset and the poem borrows phrases from Hardy, empathetically suggesting that each poet’s vision has the same sequential locus: “Things not as firstly well, a sparkling day, and / tolling of a bell”.

 

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The Fleet and Chesil Beach

 

John Greening suggests in his very helpful Introduction that Grigson is also capable of an “extraordinary lyricism” and these are moments when he captures this “sparkling” quality of the natural world. In ‘A New Tree’, helped by the holding up of a child to a window, the narrator sees again with a newly cleansed perception, “a sun / being fiercely / let loose again”. Delight in the natural world recurs in a key poem, ‘Note on Grunewald’. In it, Grigson also expresses the scepticism about literary achievements which must have driven much of his own, often acerbic, critical comments on the work of others. In a man who devoted a lifetime to literary endeavours, it’s hard to take wholly seriously the poem’s assertion that he’d rather live to sniff the “scent of the flowers of lime” than to create lasting “poems”. But the scent is praised in contrast to the art of “Grunewald’s spotted green-rotted Christ”. Grigson sides with (“I join”) Cowper in deciding that death holds no attraction and that he too would choose to “leave this world never”. The perceived dichotomy between a vivid inhabiting of the world of the senses and the ‘rotten’ achievement of artists is by no means Grigson’s final comment on these issues, but the poem certainly expresses unresolved tensions.

 

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Grunewald’s ‘spotted green-rotted Christ’

 

As Greening reminds us, Grigson as a critic was a feared and fearsome creature, liable to “dismissiveness and intolerance of shoddy work”. Perhaps, in his own mind, he never quite settled his assessment of his own poems. A lovely translation from Tu Fu was perhaps chosen because it laments lack of achievement, or at least of recognition: “Writing gives me no name”.*   More vigorously, ‘Lecture Note: Elizabethan period’ is an hilarious and outrageous account of a poet’s final work. While the ink was still wet on the page, he dropped dead. The poem fell to the floor only for the maid to drop it in “the jakes”. The final lines laugh cynically, sarcastically, as if this illustrates the fate of most artistic endeavours: “Now irretrievably beshitten, it was, dear sirs, / The one immortal poem he had written”. Yet this is delicate stuff compared to Grigson taking aim with both barrels in ‘Perhaps So’. The premise is that too much is being written:

 

Too much is told. Banish polymath Steiners

And seventy-seven other British Shiners,

Naturalists, archaeologists, publishers

Of publications in parts,

Norman Mailer

And all long-winded farts . . .

 

It’s hard to reconcile this voice with that of ‘A New Tree’. Interestingly, Grigson’s address to an ancestor whose name was ‘Nazareth Pitcher’ is critical on the surface, disparaging of Nazareth’s “pride”, suggesting his “lips were too thin”, that he might “be pleased” if he was to witness the parlous state of the world now (1960s). But it’s also difficult to dismiss the feeling that Grigson chose to address Nazareth because he sensed a kinship with this judgemental, sceptical and meanly satirical man.

 

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Castagnola (1923) – Ben Nicholson

But Grigson did admire, if very judiciously. Greening draws attention to an Eliotesque belief in tradition, that the best poems are made by “members of a long narrow community through time”. The word “narrow” here indicates Grigson felt that much of what was truly best was not appreciated by many. In one word perhaps, we see here his motivation to be harsh with what he felt not good enough and his hard work in anthologising what was. There are two tribute poems in Greening’s selection which show Grigson at his complimenting best. ‘A Painter of Our Day’ is about Ben Nicholson and has the feel of a Coleridgean conversation poem about it. Its tone is confiding, admiring, ranging from observations about playing with children, shared days out, discussions of Nicholson’s work, ageing and the nature of art. Nicholson seems to teach an appreciation of “what is” and an avoidance of nostalgia. But at the same time, he recognises the value of the “reiterated wisdom of perceiving”. That both poet and artist set the bar of achievement very high indeed is suggested by Grigson’s admission that, of their chosen role models, “most have been / Long dead”. I find it hard to pin down a more precisely articulated aesthetic, but these lines are revealing of any artist’s relation to his/her elders:

 

Suddenly when young or in our first ability

We find them, slowly we find the reasons

For our love, finding ourselves, and what we lack

As well or need the most

 

Finally, ‘To Wystan Auden’ records the moment Grigson learned of Auden’s death in the “English September” of 1973. His admiration for the younger poet is fulsome. With the appearance of his early work, Auden became “living’s healer, loving’s / Magician”. From the other end of the temporal telescope, now we can see what the young Grigson gleaned from Auden’s poetry:

 

You were our fixture, our rhythm,

Speaker, bestower, of love for us all

And forgiving, not condemning, extending

To all who would read or would hear

Your endowment of words.

 

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For all Auden’s own protesting about poetry making nothing happen, for Grigson, “time, after you, by you / Is different by your defiance”. One might ungratefully gripe that these are rather vague compliments from one poet to another. But Greening quotes Grigson suggesting that Auden’s achievement was in destroying “a too familiar, too settled monotony in manner and subject”. This is undeniable and this selection shows Grigson following Auden’s lead, yet at the same time, through his life, also being drawn back to a different, more traditional poetic style in the model of Hardy. Here, for example, in his last years, he recalls his childhood in Cornwall:

 

Staring down from that broken, one-arched bridge,

In that vale of water-mint, saint, lead-mine and midge,

I was amazed by that fat black-and-white water bird

Hunting under the current, not at all disturbed.

 

How could I tell that what I saw then and there

Would live for me still in my eightieth year?

 

BookrideGrigsonPhoto£££*As a labouring translator myself, I have long remembered Grigson’s brilliant put-down in his Introduction to the Faber Book of Love Poems (1973). Explaining why he has not included any translations at all, he declares that their “unmeasured, thin-rolled short crust” would prove detrimental to the health of the nation’s poetic taste. Times have changed, thank goodness.

W H Auden’s Thoughts on Robert Frost

In what follows I am mostly summarising Auden’s own discussion of Frost, written in the late 1940s. But I am adding thoughts of my own as well (in the light of teaching Frost) and it would be prudent to make sure you have read Auden’s essay alongside this post.

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Auden’s essay, ‘Robert Frost’, can be found in The Dyer’s Hand (Faber, 1963) and it starts with a distinction between what a poem says and what the poet says. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends with the statement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This is clearly the urn speaking and voicing a predilection for the kind of art “from which the evils and problems of this life”, argues Auden, have been “deliberately excluded” (p. 337). The Urn is such a piece of art, defining its own beauty in the act of excluding the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (alluded to in its own third stanza). Yet Keats’ main narrative voice does not subscribe to such a view and the possibilities of these ironic distances between poet, narrative speaker and dramatic characters (even if only an old urn) are things we should take into any reading of Robert Frost.

But Frost is not an Urn Poet, seeking beauty at all costs; Auden links such a desire with the figure of Shakespeare’s Ariel.  The Ariel poet wants a poem to be “a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play” which gives the reader delight in so far as it contrasts with our true existence in history, with our “insoluble problems and inescapable suffering” (p. 338). Taking an unprepossessing extract from George Peele, Auden characterises the Ariel poem as tending towards anonymous generalities, a verbal contraption such that, if we try to explain what pleasure it gives us, “one finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of caesuras etc”. Ariel has no passions – his earthly paradise is beautiful but not very earthly in truth, and nothing of consequence can happen there. An anthology edited by Ariel runs the risk of delivering mere narrowness and a monotony (or even absence) of feeling. Auden refers us to Virgil’s Eclogues, and poets like Campion, Herrick and Mallarme (I’d add other assorted Surrealists, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery). In being turned away from historical reality, there is inevitably a narcissistic quality to Ariel poems (p. 340). Damning with faint praise, Auden notes Ariel’s worst fault is a minor one, a self-regarding triviality.

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In contrast, Frost is a Prospero Poet. To explain, Auden quotes Dr Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. The Prospero poem should provide us with “some kind of revelation about our life”; it will act so as to “free us from self-enchantment and deception” (p. 338). In order to do this, the Prospero poet must introduce into the poem “the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly”, in other words Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”. Frost’s poems are recognisably of this type and they seem to derive from “an experience which preceded any words and without which the poem could not have come into being”. Rather than Ariel’s narrow focus on the beauty of the constituent verbal elements, these are now regarded as “subordinate in importance to the truth of what [the poem] says” (p. 340). Auden nominates Wordsworth as the English poet who, more than any other, has the least element of Ariel, a preponderance of Prospero. Wordsworth’s earthiness, directness of address and simplicity of language can reach peculiar, bathetic  extremes, as in ‘The Thorn:

 

This thorn you on your left espy;

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry,

I’ve measured it from side to side:

‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

 

Yet, of ‘Mending Wall, Frost has said that he “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above”. In Frost’s poem there are only two words with more than two syllables. This is evidence of Frost’s Prospero-like quality as Auden defines it. But the risk of such simplicity and directness – lodging any validity it possesses in the poem’s relation to truth – is that, in failing, the poet offends not merely against triviality but against truth itself. The poem may be false and a reader might conclude, “This poem should not have been written” (p. 341).

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Auden is, of course, dealing with extremes here and he admits most poetry presents a blend or tension of Ariel and Prospero qualities. But, considering a poet’s output, it is possible (and useful) to say that he or she is dominated by one or the other. So Auden describes Frost’s Prospero-like language: “The music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible . . . he rarely employs metaphors . .  yet he manages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety of emotion and experience” (p. 342). This achievement is because Frost’s diction is that “of a mature mind, fully awake, and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream or of uncontrollable passion”.  The reader will often be aware of strong, even violent, emotions lying behind what is actually said, but the saying “is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity”. So Frost’s poems are quiet on the surface which readers find inviting or, if more superficially read, boring. But the drama is real enough and, once entered into, not uncommonly, in Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, potentially “terrifying”.

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Auden goes on to make observations about some of Frost’s themes. ‘Two Look at Two’ is a “miraculous exception” in Frost’s general presentation of man’s relationship with Nature since the couple observing the buck and the doe seem to be rewarded with a sympathetic response. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”. In fact, this conclusion may seem less exceptional if we pay attention to the “As if” and – just as in Keats’ Urn – find a difference between the poet’s intention and the Ariel-like urge towards an ideal or paradisal ending to the poem (the couple’s love is returned only in their own rosy-tinted perception). More typically, Frost’s Nature is better represented by the “great buck” of ‘The Most of It’ which emerges from a lake, alien and indifferent to the human desire for “counter-love”.

This sense of cosmic indifference to the human draws from Frost his often expressed admiration of stoic courage, the ability to keep on keeping on. This, Auden points out, is the significance of Frost’s frequently deserted dwellings. In Europe, such an image might suggest “injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human pride”. But in Frost, such ruins are rather “an image of human heroism, of a defence in the narrow pass against hopeless odds” (p. 345). Auden’s point is that Frost’s poetry looks forwards rather than backwards, nostalgia is not a common note; more usual, and more distinctively American, is “the ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a discovery or a new start” (p. 349). This is why Frost lauds work and labour so much. His highest virtue is the self-respect that comes from taking pride in something achieved.

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Baptiste – the French-Canadian axe-maker in ‘The Axe-Helve – is such a man and also a Prospero-like artist:

 

He showed me that the lines of a good helve

Were native to the grain before the knife

Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves

Put on it from without. And there its strength lay [. . .]

 

An Ariel axe-helve would look beautiful – but be wholly useless for the task. Frost said: “Art should follow the lines in nature [. . .] False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves”. Unreliably narrated by a stiffly condescending New England Yankee farmer, the poem in fact favours Baptiste’s pragmatic art (which is Frost’s too). The same effect is heard in ‘Mending Wall’ in which the arrogant, mischievous narrative voice makes no headway against his less educated neighbour’s refrain: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

The narrator of ‘The Wood Pile’ is similarly undermined by his own poem. There is an Ariel-like restlessness about him. His curiosity has an aimless, insatiable quality as if the mixed nature of what lies before him is not enough. Having decided to return home, he changes his mind: “No, I will go farther – and we shall see”. What he eventually finds is an image reflective of his own failing: a wood pile, carefully and laboriously constructed and then abandoned in a restless search for novelty. Seemingly un-selfaware, he criticises the man who “lived in turning to fresh tasks” and could “so forget his handiwork”.

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It’s in ‘Birches’ that Frost most clearly engages with the contrasting desires of Ariel and Prospero. Climbing the tree “Toward heaven” is Ariel’s desire to “get away from earth a while”. This is contrasted to the earlier passage in the poem in which “Truth” breaks into the narrative, describing the irreversible damaged an ice storm can do to a birch tree: “they never right themselves”. It is Frost’s choice to take a third way, to be “a swinger of birches”, achieving a balance or sequence of both heavenward and earthward motion. If this sounds like an equal balance, it is misleading since –  as Auden argued – the scale is unmistakably tipped in Frost’s case towards Prospero. I don’t sense any irony in the declaration of ‘Birches’: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

This Must Be All: Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’

I have recently posted about Robert Frost’s brief essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ as well as on one of his lesser known poems, ‘A Soldier’. The latter is one of the poems I’ll be teaching this coming academic year as set by the Cambridge International Exam Board: see page 47. Student essays are supposed to offer a close analysis of one (or two poems) while also exploring a wider understanding of what the poet is doing in terms of methods and concerns (techniques and themes). Another of the set poems is discussed in what follows: ‘Two Look at Two’. I read the poem here:

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In The Dyer’s Hand (1963), Auden’s essay on Frost opens by observing that, if asked who said ‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’, most people would reply ‘John Keats’. Auden differs, arguing the famous phrase is really something Keats makes the Grecian urn say so the author maintains some dramatic distance between himself and the poem’s questionable statement. This is also a very Frostian device – though not one that Auden probes in his subsequent discussion of the poems. Whenever we read Frost, it’s important to be alert to such ironic distancing from the (simply understood) lyric voice or ‘I’. In fact, ‘Two Look at Two’ is a poem which does not obviously lend itself to this ‘dramatic’ sort of interpretation as its narrative voice seems more reliably omniscient, or at least impersonal. And yet the obvious meaning of the poem is not characteristic of a poet whose work can be dark and pessimistic, indeed labelled “terrifying” by Lionel Trilling in 1959. In the poem, a couple of lovers, walking up a mountain, encounter a corresponding pair of deer – a doe and buck. At the end of the brief, uneventful encounter the narrator reports that the human couple sense a “wave” of reciprocated love emanating from the “earth”. At the conclusion of this discussion, I’ll look again at whether the narrator’s confident assertion of this should be taken at face value.

The first and last words in the poem are the same: “love”. The opening 3 lines are full of qualifying equivocations with the choice of verb form “might” and the vague but limiting phrases about how far up the mountain side the couple will go: “A little further up” and “not much further up”. It is the twin forces of “love and forgetting” which have the potential to drive them higher up the mountain. The two are probably linked in that, absorbed in their mutual love, they may become forgetful, neglectful of the potential dangers in the landscape. The risk of self-absorption (even in the cause of romantic love) is raised here by Frost, a risk encountered by other narrators in poems like ‘An Encounter’, ‘The Wood-Pile’ and most clearly in ‘Stopping by Woods…’ In the latter, the allure of the snowy woods is strongly felt by the narrator (“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”) but his work and social responsibilities probably prevent him from abandoning the road and risking/welcoming death by exposure.

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In many cases, the chief risk is a neglect of the boundaries that in Frost’s world it seems wiser to acknowledge and adhere to. In ‘Two Look at Two’ this is clear in the forceful verbs used in the following few lines (“They must have halted” and “they must not go”) and it may explain the optimistic nature of this poem that we see the lovers in fact do adhere to the limits set. Lines 5/6 suggest they have thoughts not of over-reaching or dizzying aspiration but rather of the dangers present to them: “With thoughts of the path back, how rough it was / With rock and washout, and unsafe in darkness”. Frost’s music here is suitably rough and threatening with its harsh consonants and internal rhyme (path/back), the growling ‘r’ sounds followed by a swilling of sibilance (washout /unsafe /darkness) suggestive of the water-eroded path on the hillside. When they encounter the actual physical barrier of a wall, Frost bulks it up (despite its ruined state) in the reader’s ear with heavy plosive ‘b’ sounds: “they were halted by a tumbled wall / With barbed-wire binding”.

This is not a barrier to be passed easily – and the lovers do not even try. They possess a sort of Frostian piety or reverence most clearly seen also in ‘Mending Wall with its repeated maxim: “Good fences make good neighbours”. ‘Two Look at Two’ does allow its lovers a residual “onward impulse” which they spend, or expend, simply by gazing up along the path “they must not” now follow. The dangers that lie there are again described with a telling adjective (it is a “failing path”) and a haunting moment of hypothetical personification: “if a stone / Or earthslide moved at night, it moved itself”. It is at this point that we hear some words spoken by the lovers. Their words are brief and (effectively) firmly monosyllabic – “This is all [. . . ] Good-night to woods”. But they are accompanied by a sighing of regret that the walk has reached its limit. Frost here is accepting the reality of human desire – that “limitless trait of ‘There Are Roughly Zones’ –but he and the lovers see the risks of its limitless pursuit.

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The lovers’ clipped statements are answered in kind by the narrative voice: “But not so; there was more.” The clipped, heavily punctuated nature of lines 13/14 make them a clear, early turning point in the poem, a moment of stasis and some tension. The unpunctuated and enjambed line 15 then sets the narrative flowing again as it records the sudden presence of the doe, staring back across the wall at the lovers. The mirroring effect is most important and presented through the plain language of lines 16/7: the doe is looking at them “Across the wall, as near the wall as they. / She saw them in their field, they her in hers”.  In each line the caesura acts as the wall, dividing and join the two halves of the lines. The repetitions of ‘wall’, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘her’ slow and focus the reader on what the title suggests is the mutual regard occurring on either side of the wall.

Frost’s narrative slides seamlessly into the doe’s perspective, imagining her difficulty in seeing the couple. Though watched carefully, their alien appearance is conveyed in a simile: they are “like some up-ended boulder split in two”. But the couple perceive no “fear” in the creature and Frost’s formulation – “they saw no fear there” – also suggests they feel no fear on their part either. In fact, lines 21-24 rather suggest the couple, “though strange”, do not possess much interest for the doe:

She could not trouble her mind with [them] too long,

She sighed and passed unscared along the wall.

Notably, she also shares the ‘sigh’ with the couple and in this way the shared mutuality of the encounter is emphasised, preparing us for the final affirmative moments of the poem.

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The couple’s speech (line 25) suggests – through italicisation, short phrases and the rhetorical question – that they are breathlessly impressed. They think this is “all” but there is more to come. Frost’s poem ‘The Most of It’ comes to mind, recording as it does the appearance of another creature (“As a great buck”), its advent perhaps a response to a man’s demand for “counter-love, original response”. There, the creature seems brutish, indifferent, unaware, alien and incomprehensible as it stumbles off into the underbrush. ‘The Most of It’ (bafflingly not a poem included in CIE’s set poem list) is a key poem to contrast with ‘Two Look at Two’. In the latter, a buck also appears and, despite its more challenging even arrogant tone, it is never as frighteningly remote as the creature in ‘The Most of It’.

The buck of ‘Two Look at Two’ announces itself with a “snort” and is a more stereotypically masculine presence with its antlers, “lusty nostril”, its jerking head and its (imagined) arrogantly dismissive questioning of the couple. But his difference from the doe is minor as we recognise a whole line repeated: the buck also stands looking at the couple, “Across the wall, as near the wall as they”. It’s perhaps not clear who is interpreting the shaking of the buck’s head as questions. It’s either the narrative voice itself or that voice reporting (omnisciently) on the thoughts of the couple. His questions verge on the belligerent:

Why don’t you make some motion?

Or give some sign of life? Because you can’t.

I doubt if you’re as living as you look.

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If we are going to find disharmony in this seemingly mutual encounter, this is where it might lie. The buck’s questions portray the couple as standing respectfully, perhaps in awe, certainly in silence. The impact of the (imagined) questions is to make the human couple “almost” feel “dared / to stretch a proffering hand – and a spell-breaking one”. So the buck’s obstreperous attitude strikes the couple as a dare to reach out across the divide. Such an action would be to proffer, “to hold out or put forward (something) to someone for its acceptance”, hence a gesture of friendship. But Frost also makes it clear such a reaching across the divide would break the spell of mutual regard which has been the subject of the whole poem. In fact, the moment of choice – a topic of so many other Frost poems, most famously ‘The Road Not Taken’ – is passed over as the buck, just like the doe, moves away, “unscared along the wall”.

The final 5 lines deal with the impact on the lovers. Again, they briefly speak: “This must be all”. And on this occasion, the narrative voice agrees: “It was all”. The final phrase in ‘The Most of It’ is “and that was all”. Is this the cry or half-question of the disappointed man asking, ‘Is there no more than this’? Or is it a rapt, stunned whispering in the face of a vision of a unitary world declaring, ‘So this is all and all’s connected’? You could ask the same questions about the end of ‘Two Look at Two’ though the couple’s italicised emphasis in line 39 and the fact they continue to stand, as if rapt and wrapped still in the experience they have just had, surely does not suggest disappointment. Frost uses the metaphor of the “wave” sweeping over them, suggesting an irresistible inundation, a largeness of feeling derived from this minor incident. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”.

But the “As if” that opens line 41 cannot be ignored. This is how it felt – for the lovers. I don’t think Frost wants to deny them their experience. But perhaps they are still too absorbed in their own “Love and forgetting”. This is where the sense of the poem as a dramatic performance perhaps is relevant, in this case the incident rosily-coloured by the perceptions of the lovers. We ought to hesitate before we conclude that Frost himself sees the earth as in fact mutually responding with love. This would be exactly the “counter-love, original response” that so signally does not occur in ‘The Most of It’. The optimism of ‘Two Look at Two’ cannot be dismissed – but nor can it be taken in any simple way as the real and final ‘message’ of its author.

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