Patricia Beer (1919-1999) has a very distinctive voice, as can be heard in this remarkably honest poem about the loss of a parent that does not shrink from facing up to the anger and sense of abandonment that can be a component of grief. I think the image of mother and daughter as sheep and lamb could have been a tricky one to handle, but in the event is brilliantly sustained.
I was too young. I had to watch
My heavy mother lie on her back to scratch.
They never touched ground again, those brittle feet.
I cannot eat what all the others eat.
Foolish mother, rolling to death, how long
Shall the deserted bare an aching tongue
To call for what is drying up inside you
As the afternoon trees begin to shade you?
Soon he will come, the farmer, and haul away
And hide that sheep, who treacherously
Lay down, where I can never find her
Nor go into the slaughter house behind her.
The sharp May grass sings under my nose
And soon the farmer will hear a new voice
That lost the day wailing about hunger
But towards nightfall turns to anger.
I know of very few poems on the subject of physical pain. Perhaps this is because there is nothing much useful to be said about it; perhaps we just don’t have the vocabulary. After all, don’t you just hate the modern fad whereby health services ask you to ‘rate your pain’? So you go to consult about something irksome but fairly minor on the scale of human affliction, say acute sciatica, and you get: ‘And how do you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?’ What do you say? A truthful ‘Well, compared with being burned alive or torn to pieces on the rack or dying of strangury, about 0.01’ seems likely to elicit a response of ‘So, why are you wasting my time?’, whereas a confident ‘Oh, at least six’ surely marks you out as a big wuss with a very limited imagination.
So all credit to Robert Graves in this poem for managing to convey something about the nature of the beast in his usual distinctive way.
Surgical Ward: Men
Something occurred after the operation
To scare the surgeons (though no fault of theirs),
Whose reassurance did not fool me long.
Beyond the shy, concerned faces of nurses
A single white-hot eye, focusing on me,
Forced sweat in rivers down from scalp to belly.
I whistled, gasped or sang, with blanching knuckles
Clutched at my bed-grip almost till it cracked:
Too proud, still, to let loose Bedlamite screeches
And bring the charge-nurse scuttling down the aisle
With morphia-needle levelled….
Lady Morphia –
Her scorpion kiss and dark gyrating dreams –
She in mistrust of whom I dared out-dare,
Two minutes longer than seemed possible,
Pain, that unpurposed, matchless elemental
Stronger than fear or grief, stranger than love.
It can be a bit annoying when you are having an experience that you are trying to put into words and up pops someone else’s poem in your head to save you the bother. Yet who would forgo the pleasures of a well-stocked memory? This happened to me last Saturday when I was in the local woods at dusk to catch the roding flight of a woodcock, and song thrushes (now sadly vanishing from my garden) could be heard all around. ‘Far in the pillared dark/Thrush music went…’. How perfect that epithet ‘pillared’, I thought, looking at the tall straight beeches disappearing into dimness rank on rank. Here is the whole poem, where Frost contemplates his sense of apartness as a poet with a kind of wistful defiance.
Incidentally, Frost’s ‘pillared’ may well be an echo of A.E.Housman’s beautiful ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ – ‘And full of shade the pillared forest/Would murmur and be mine’. Good poets borrow, great poets steal!
As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.
Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.
The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush’s breast.
Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.
But no, I was out for stars:
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn’t been.
I tend to think of George Crabbe (1754-1832) as predominantly an eighteenth-century poet, though in fact he was active into the nineteenth, was on friendly terms with Wordsworth and the Lake poets, and was much approved by Byron. Now, I confess that the feeling I get from much eighteenth-century verse is one of claustrophobic brilliance: so deft, so accomplished, so narrowly social – you want to shout ‘Hey, guys, there’s a world out there, what about it?’. Well, with Crabbe you get the world out there all right, but the claustrophobia doesn’t get any less. In ‘Peter Grimes’ the Suffolk coastal landscape is used to devastatingly oppressive effect to mirror the entrapment of a soul damned by its own devices. This passage in particular has always seemed to me quite extraordinary in its use of that favourite eighteenth-century form, the heroic couplet, matching Pope for fluency, Swift for mordancy, yet reaching beyond both to a Shakespearean richness of language and perception.
When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide;
Where the small eels that left the deeper way
For the warm shore, within the shallows play;
Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud,
Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood;
Here dull and hopeless he’d lie down and trace
How sidelong crabs had scrawled their crooked race;
Or sadly listen to the tuneless cry
Of fishing gull or clanging goldeneye;
What time the sea birds to the marsh would come,
And the loud bittern, from the bulrush home,
Gave from the salt-ditch side the bellowing boom.
He nursed the feelings these dull scenes produce,
And loved to stop beside the opening sluice,
Where the small stream, confined in narrow bound,
Ran with a dull, unvaried, saddening sound;
Where all presented to the eye or ear
Oppressed the soul with misery, grief, and fear.