This one has mixed associations for me. Our firstborn came into the world over fifty years ago now, but in many ways it seems like yesterday. My wife’s contractions started soon after midnight, and having had a tricky pregnancy she was whisked off to hospital by ambulance while I followed after. On arrival she was directed to a ward and I to some sort of fathers’ room, where I spent a rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep on a couple of plastic chairs. (My wife wishes to point out that her own night was also not entirely without discomfort). In the course of this I chummed up with another young first-time father.
In the morning my wife was moved to a delivery room and I sat with her through a long hot June morning until around half-past two in the afternoon we were gifted with the never to be taken for granted miracle of a lusty new life coming into the world. I left the room walking on air after holding my firstborn son, and bumping into my friend of the night before told him all about it, remembering at the end to ask how his had gone. ‘Oh, ours was stillborn’, he said quietly, and I saw then his stricken young face.
I could think of nothing to say except ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’, apologising as much for my own tactless happiness as for the cruelty of chance, and perhaps there is nothing more useful anyway to be said in such cases. Yet at least this poem makes some attempt to grapple with that strangest and blankest of griefs.
For A Child Born Dead
What ceremony can we fit
You into now? If you had come
Out of a warm and noisy room
To this, there’d be an opposite
For us to know you by. We could
Imagine you in lively mood
And then look at the other side,
The mood drawn out of you, the breath
Defeated by the power of death
But we have never seen you stride
Ambitiously the world we know.
You could not come and yet you go.
But there is nothing now to mar
Your clear refusal of our world
Not in our memories can we mould
You or distort your character.
Then all our consolation is
That grief can be as pure as this.
This is an early poem by Patricia Beer (see also week 191), written in her first somewhat romantic and soft-focus style that is quite unlike her later much edgier work. I have never quite made up my mind about it. I do admire it for its imagery and musicality, but the trouble with poems that riff on someone else’s work or draw on the ‘myth kitty’ is that they can seem a bit secondhand and, paradoxically, rootless, so this may be one of those cases where I want to say to the poet ‘Yes, very nice, but why?’. So it is that personally I would rate the week 191 piece, ‘Bereavement’, as the better poem for seeming more urgent, more necessary: a lot of developing as a poet is about getting ever closer to your own experience and less reliant on that of others.
So come I into church again
My body straight as thunder rain,
My mouth grey as sirocco skies
My lids are newly fallen snow
And no March now will ever show
The tears that bloom inside my eys
Before the swift world turned to me,
Before the green plain like a sea
Shouldering Verona wall
Pushed the stones and lizards down
Unpicked the cobbles of the town
I never touched the world at all.
Now high in church my father stands
And takes my father by the hands.
The living peal into the sun
United as a chime of bells
But in the dark like scattered pearls
The matchless dead lie one by one.
Low on the bright mosaic floor
I who am Juliet no more
Have become Juliet at last,
In this loud night the miracle
Of tomb and history go past.
Following on from last week, another poem with a surprising choice of subject matter: who would have thought that transporting sheep by boat could produce a piece that I for one, not normally much of a W.H.Davies fan, find curiously effective for all its seeming naivety. I think it owes its success to the poet’s empathy with the unfortunate beasts, and that’s fine, but I wonder if it also works by stirring up thoughts of human cargoes, slaves and convicts, also transported by sea in appalling conditions, and with scarcely more notion of where they were or understanding of what lay in store for them than had the poor sheep in the poem.
When I was once in Baltimore,
A man came up and cried,
‘Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we will sail on Tuesday’s tide.
‘If you will sail with me, young man,
I’ll pay you fifty shillings down;
These eighteen hundred sheep I take
From Baltimore to Glasgow town.’
He paid me fifty shillings down,
I sailed with eighteen hundred sheep;
We soon had cleared the harbour’s mouth,
We soon were in the salt sea deep.
The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear –
They smelt no pastures in the wind.
They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.
I do like it when poets surprise one with an unconventional choice of material and make it work. I enjoy poems about stars and flowers and lost love as much as anyone, but I do take my hat off to a man who can work in wash basins, snoring and lorries, not to mention rhyming suntrap and claptrap, and still produce a lyrical, perfectly serious poem with a compelling message.
A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.
This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.