Thursday, March 31, 2011

'He Resigns' by John Berryman & 'The Widow's Lament in Springtime' by William Carlos Williams

He Resigns

                   Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts.
                        Her having gone away
                        in spirit from me. Hosts
                        of regrets come and find me empty.

                        I don’t feel this will change.
                        I don’t want anything
                        or person, familiar or strange.
                        I don’t think I will sing

                        anymore just now,
                        or ever. I must start
                        to sit with a blind brow
                        above an empty heart.


                        The Widow’s Lament in Springtime

                   Sorrow in my own yard
                        where the new grass
                        flames as it has flamed
                        often before but not
                        with the cold fire
                        that closes around me this year.
                        Thirty-five years
                        I lived with my husband.
                        The plum tree is white today
                        with masses of flowers.
                        Masses of flowers
                        load the cherry branches
                        and color some bushes
                        yellow and some red
                        but the grief in my heart
                        is stronger than they
                        for though they were my joy
                        formerly, today I notice them
                        and turn away forgetting.
                        Today my son told me
                        that in the meadows,
                        at the edge of the heavy woods
                        in the distance, he saw
                        trees of white flowers.
                        I feel that I would like
                        to go there
                        and fall into the flowers
                        and sink into the marsh near them.


After the reserved grief of Anne Sexton’s ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ here are two of my favourite loss poems. I read them when I started writing and transcribed them into a notebook, knowing I would return to them both many times. In a sense, it is a reminder to myself to never forget the power of the emotionally direct and tender poem. There is no showy sentimentality here. There is simply feeling.

What strikes me is the surface simplicity, both of language and approach; the power also of the plain statement. In Berryman’s poem there is a sudden shift of focus at the end of the 2nd stanza: “I don’t feel this will change”. In ‘The Widow’s Lament in Springtime’ (at approximately the same position in the poem and acting rather like a 'beat' in a dramatic scene) there is a similar stark statement: “Thirty-five years / I lived with my husband”. There is no theatricality here, just naked emotion; no striving after heroic loss but the simple fact of loss as felt.

I mentioned Berryman’s Dreamsongs in an earlier entry in relation to use of the third person strategy that he employs brilliantly and often in the sequence. It is almost impossible to define what Berryman does in these poems. His alter ego, Henry, is part vaudevillian showman, part clown, part tragic-comic protagonist. With ‘He Resigns’ Berryman moves back from all his theatrical tropes and present a very direct and surprising piece. When you encounter it among the other wildly imaginative poems, its simplicity almost makes your heart break.

An interesting nugget for those interested in the long project that was the Dreamsongs. Berryman spent some time in Dublin in 1967 and wrote a large number of poems for the sequence during his stay in the Emerald place. I always find this surprising given the quintessentially America flavour of the poems. What a strange figure he must have also cut as he read from them on, at least, one occasion in the capital. The Irish poet John Montague recounts that event in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and how Patrick Kavanagh was persuaded to go, after some effort, but only if Berryman didn't say that Yeats was the greatest Irish poet. Berryman got word of this and with his known sense of mischief, started his reading by proclaiming how wonderful it was to be in Ireland, 'the home of that genius among Irish poets: W.B. Yeats'. On hearing this, Kavanagh - standing at the back of the hall - lived up to his threat and noisily departed the gathering with his cohort of Palace Bar comrades, much to Berryman's amusement. What I would give to have been a fly on that wall.

In any case, here are some images of Berryman in Ireland from The Big States blog:

Here is a clip of Berryman reading Dreamsong ‘There Sat Down, Once, A Thing on Henry’s Heart’ which I’m happy to report was recorded during that famous stay in Dublin in an extended with A. Alvarez for the BBC. The director of the segment was apparently quite put out by the fact that Berryman was clearly already 'in his cups' for this lunchtime recording session, as the reading somewhat belies... So, fantastic that this rare footage has turned up again.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The launch of my collection of two novellas

I just wanted to interrupt my reflections on poems to mention that my debut book of prose, The Return Journey & Our Friends Electric: Two Novellas, was published recently by Ward Wood Publishing. You can find out more about it at Ward Wood's website:

Here's the lovely cover that houses the two pieces. My thanks to Mike Fortune-Wood for the design and Adele Ward for her sensitive and clear-headed edit of the material.

We had a great night at The Irish Writers' Centre, Dublin, and I was grateful to Shauna Busto Gilligan for introducing the press; to Prof Adrian Frazier for launching the book and very generous remarks about work; and, most especially, to all those who came along on a cold February evening to support the event.

Here are a few pictures from the night. More can be found on Ward Wood's Facebook page.

The Book Table

Shauna Gilligan introducing proceedings

Prof Adrian Frazier in typically relaxed mood

Signing a copy of the book for my good friend Tony Kelly

The book is available from Amazon and the Ward Wood website. It can also be found in bookshops in Dublin including Books Upstairs, Tower Records, Dubray (Swan Centre, Rathmines) and the Rathgar Bookshop.

'The Truth the Dead Know' by Anne Sexton (1962)

             The Truth The Dead Know    

                   Gone, I say and walk from the church,
                        refusing the stiff procession to the grave,
                        letting the dead ride alone in the hearse.
                        It is June. I am tired of being brave.

                        We drive to the cape. I cultivate
                        myself where the sun gutters from the sky,
                        where the sea swings in like an iron gate
                        and we touch. In another country people die.

                        My darling, the wind falls in like stones
                        from the whitehearted water and we touch
                        we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
                        Men kill for this, or for as much.

                        And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
                        in their stone boats. They are more like stone
                        than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
                        to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Anne Sexton is known for poems of great imaginative flair and wonderfully original metaphors that freewheel forward in unexpected directions and on subjects daring in their perspectives.  This is a relatively early piece and embodies an unusually restrained quality, highly influenced, I think, by the formalism of the late 1950s American East Coast school. (Another excellent piece in this vein is the much longer ‘The Double-Image’.)

‘The Truth The Dead Know’ deals with the issue of raw grief, which perhaps makes the restraint more disarming. The poem doesn’t rage. It moves with resignation. As I wrote it down I suddenly saw the influence of Robert Lowell, who had been Sexton’s teacher in Boston around this time: the composure of the form, the beautifully modulated movement from feeling to statement. “It is June. I’m tired of being brave”.

I think the way Sexton handles the rhyming pattern in the poem also acts as a very subtle effect largely as a result of the way she breaks the lines and the use of run-on. There is a formal elegance to it, which isn’t a strategy Sexton used in much of her later work. The rhymes don’t chime but play a quiet music on the inner ear. The poem also has a grace which is achieved I think by the variation of sentence length with those short declaratives dropped in: “We drive to the Cape”; “No one’s alone”; “In another country people die”. Simple statements peppered through the more descriptive passages giving the poem the exhausted, melancholic quality which perfectly echoes her sense of loss that is, somehow, more powerful by being muted, like the dead who are more like “stone / than the sea would be if it stopped” (a brilliant metaphor to end on).

Here's a recording of Sexton reading the poem. Interesting to see - in this earlier version - how the last lines are so different.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'After the Titanic' by Derek Mahon (1985)

              After the Titanic

                             They said I got away in the boat
                        And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
                                    I sank as far that night as any
                        Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
                                    I turned to ice to hear my costly
                        Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
                                    Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
                        Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
                                    In a lonely house behind the sea
                        Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes
                                    Silently at my door. The showers of
                        April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
                                    Late lights of June, when my gardener
                        Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
                                    On seaward mornings after nights of
                        Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is
                                    I drown again with all those dim
                        Lost faces I never understood. My poor soul
                                    Screams out in the starlight, heart
                        Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
                                    Include me in your lamentations.

Given that tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day I thought it would be apt to look at a piece by one of the great masters of Irish poetry, Derek Mahon. I am interested, in general, in the kind of modern-day epic tragedies such as the sinking of the Titanic (recounted here), Scott’s polar expedition (about which Mahon has also written), or the failed - and sadly fatal - Everest attempt by Mallory and Irvine in 1924 (about which I’ve tried to write something). I think the brilliance of this poem derives not only from the dramatic monologue strategy Mahon employs here, but from the choice of point-of-view and timeframe: the tragedy occurs many years and miles away from the actual sinking by a the man "humbled at the inquiry" (with all that that suggests) who has survived the catastrophe. It is, in the end, a poem about the guilt of the survivor and the unheroic old age of the those who escaped the explicit tragedy.

Another thing that interests me here is a much smaller technical point. Towards the end of the poem, Mahon writes:

                                                                        …My poor soul
                                                Screams out in the starlight, heart
                                    Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone…

It is the absence of the possessive adjective “my” before “heart” that draws my attention. It’s not immediately clear why this absence heightens the word “heart” but it does somehow. It moves us, I think, one step closer to the aura of that word, to the feeling it generates. It is not his heart, but heart. My heart, your heart, our heart. Heart. The sense of the word is utterly heightened by the omission and somehow makes the speaker's grief more universal as a result. It is the grief of everyone who survived the disaster. It is a beautiful effect but can only work if used sparingly, as it is here. Another interesting thing to note is that Mahon breaks the line on this word, further heightening the emphasis.

One further point. There is also the interesting use of the line lengths variations creating a kind of oscillating rhythm. Mahon is a true formalist and there is clearly nothing accidental or casual about the way his poems appear on the page. I think the variation subtly suggests the waves washing up and slipping back from the shore, as the speaker drowns again “with all those dim/ Lost faces I never understood”. The energy and rhythm this carries into the poem is difficult to quantify in a short space, but clearly works not just in terms of meaning, but in terms of music and rhythm also, the latter reinforcing and 'enacting' the former.

Mahon, the great formalist combines all these effects to a brilliant conclusion as the tragic figure asks of us at the poem’s end: “Include me in your lamentations.”

Revision 3.2.14

I have removed my reference to the speaker's (possible) cowardice as discussed in older comments as I feel Mahon's change of title from 'Bruce Ismay's Lament' to the present one broadens the theme and clearly deliberately so. Ismay was the Managing Director of the White Star Line, the company who owned the Titanic, hence my initial remark. Still, it's interesting to know of the original title and, thus, how it framed the earlier version of the poem. Rather like the point I made above, it raises the piece from that of a singular experience and moves it towards a more universal one.

Here's a short video piece from BBC News that shows how Ismay's descendants have tried to redress what the see as his victimisation in the media after the sinking of the Titanic and, indeed, for the rest of his life.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

'Goodwill, Thrift Store, Missoula' by Sheryl Noethe (1994)

Goodwill, Thrift Store, Missoula

It’s hard to hate
anybody when we’re
all maybe trying
on the shoes of the
dead together,
trying on their slacks
and reading their books.
So we are gentle
to each other
when we reach for the same glass
or some bracelet,
smile when we collide
between the broken couch
and a stain on the sheet.
We pass, cool ghosts who feel
the sleeves of jackets,
the hems of dresses, and hold
nylon stockings up to the light.
An old man tries on
a dead soldiers coat. It weighs
him down, he bends as though
he were carrying the man on his back.
When he opens the narrow pocketbook
a moth flies up.
We find blouses for our mothers
we never sent.
A past we never knew. White bowls
that fit inside each other.
Someone else’s babies.
Painstakingly embroidered pillowcases.
Empty jars. Proof of happier lives.
When we walk past the rack
of dark wool suits
I smell a human musk
like an animal would.
I get a sense of a man,
of my long-dead grandfather,
and am filled with love
for the suits, love
for the man holding
the double boiler,
love for the teen-age girl
with bare feet, searching the ends
of her hair and watching
the clock, love
for the lonesome one
that the shoes
will surely

After a slightly uncertain start, the poem moves with more sureness as it progresses, though remains tentative and tender as it does so. The speaker searches the thrift shop for clothes, books, bracelets... There is a sense, at first, of something fragile: the presence of the dead, the brittleness of those who walk among these discarded possessions. “So we are gentle to each other when we reach for the same glass...” Such places possess an implicit melancholia, evoking a faint feeling of hopelessness like the artist Christian Boltanski’s room of lost objects (shoes, blouses, wheelchairs, suitcases…). Perhaps also this is why the poem has no stanza breaks. One object suggests another and the fragility of those who peruse them are held together – for a moment at least – by these loose meaning and connections (they are all in the thrift shop after all).

Yet for those in the store, their being there is not fuelled by nostalgia but by necessity. They search for clothes, stockings, a dead man’s coat. They are in need and must wear what has already been against another’s – a stranger’s – skin. So they are gentle to each other, and find a kind of dignity and humility in the careful examination of garments.

And finally, where a stray human musk brings a flood of memories back (of the poet’s dead grandfather), there is feeling of love that extends out to include those others in the shop: a feeling generated by solidarity; a nearness to the past, its breath tangled in the starched fabric; a nearness to death also and the light (not darkness) it casts in those who are living, "for the lonsome one/ that the shoes/ will surely/ fit".

The plain and simple fact expressed: that there are moments (and maybe just moments) when we can love those we do not know.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

'Place of the Salamander' by Yves Bonnefoy & 'The Snowman' by Wallace Stevens

                                                 Place of the Salamander 
                   The startled salamander freezes
                        And feigns death.
                        This is the first step of consciousness among the stones,
                        The purest myth,
                        A great fire passed through, which is spirit.

                        The salamander was halfway up
                        The wall, in the light from our windows.
                        Its gaze was merely stone,
                        But I saw its heart beat eternal.

                        O my accomplice and my thought, my allegory
                        Of all that is pure,
                        How I love that which clasps to its silence thus
                        The single force of joy.

                        How I love that which gives itself to the stars by the inert
                        Mass of its whole body,
                        How I love that which awaits the hour of its victory
                        And holds its breath and clings to the ground.

                        Translation: Galway Kinnell

                                         The Snowman
                        One must have a mind of winter
                        To regard the frost and the boughs
                        Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

                        And have been cold a long time
                        To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
                        The spruces rough in the distant glitter

                        Of the January sun; and not to think
                        Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
                        In the sound of a few leaves,

                        Which is the sound of the land
                        Full of the same wind
                        That is blowing in the same bare place

                        For the listener, who listens to the snow,
                        And, nothing himself, beholds
                        Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.


With these two poems from Bonnefoy and Stevens it is not so much their technical aspects that interest me but rather the sensibilities at work in them. In a sense, it comes back to what I wrote about ‘The Panther’ by Rilke. These poems represent an entirely new response to nature which removes it from the old role as picturesque backdrop to human life, or even the more sophisticated “pantheism” of the Romantics.

Here, the boundary between the natural world and the individual’s awareness of it is heightened to the point where it almost breaks down. It is as if there is an attempt to experience a direct relationship between the two: mind located in the greater ground of nature. Steven’s poem expresses this connection explicitly and seems, to my mind, to share something of the detached observationalism of Oriental thought, particularly Zen Buddhism: “One must have the mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine trees crusted with snow...”. Bonnefoy’s approach, although similar in effect, derives from a tradition where the individual, subjective experience is more central to the encounter (the repeated use of that very human word ‘love’ anchors the poem in this way and shows the participation of the observer). The essential quality of these kinds of awareness is that they no longer treat the natural world as separate (the world out there) but as possessing a reality that is not disconnected from our own. In this sense, these poems embody a new position.

Helen Vendler writes in her introduction to the Faber Book of 20th Century Poetry that modernists strove for a precision of perception which Steven’s spoke of as an “accuracy with respect to the structure of reality”. It is this attempt at accuracy that signifies the difference. In the past, in the instances where nature was regarded as possessing an intelligence – as in Classical Mythology – it was given this quality at the expense of its own reality or “structure”. In other words, it was still a backdrop to our human dramas, albeit an elaborate one which clapped thunder at the appropriate moment.

Perhaps with the modern view derived largely from objective scientific theories – particularly Darwinian evolution – the roles are reversed. Nature is not there for our amusement or advantage. We have grown and struggled from it, but are grounded in its laws. I don’t mean to suggest, at the same time, that nature governs us completely and that we are at the mercy of its dispassionate and fixed laws. Rather, it is that our reality cannot be separated from that of nature, and the two must be understood in relation to each other. As Steven’s put it in The Necessary Angel: "The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us." In this sense, the observer makes it real, even as that observer attempts to absent himself and “behold / Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”

Without attempting to differentiate between Bonnefoy’s and Steven’s positions I wanted to look at this awareness in view of Bonnefoy’s favourite word “presence” which may apply to both poems in their different stances. In his introduction to Bonnefoy’s selected poems, John Naughton writes:

             Much of the emphasis in French poetry inspired by Mallarm√© has been the
idea of absence: the recognition of the fatal abolition of the signified by the
the signifier… From the beginning, Bonnefoy’s intuition of and insistence
upon presence has set him apart. The emergence of presence in our experience
                of the world creates what the poet calls the “true place”.

Essentially the notion of presence restores our place in a meaningful universe not by appropriating or using it to our own purpose, but by allowing its structures to become apparent and reconciled to our own. It seems to me the essential difference between ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Place of the Salamander’ is that presence is represented in the first by the act of self-negation, the natural world objectified within our gaze – with us, in turn, understood as objects in that world; and in the latter by the act of identification with the world, with the subject bleeding into the natural order as the salamander feigns death, this being “the first step of consciousness among the stones... a great fire passed through which is spirit”. Both poets share a similar project, but with quite different outcomes: to come to terms with our relationship to the environment, and to discover and chart some kind of meaning through such an encounter.

After the somewhat theoretical nature of today's entry, I shall be returning to more emotionally direct material next week!

'The Snowman' read by James Merrill