Week 474: For A Child Born Dead, by Elizabeth Jennings

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.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 473: Juliet, by Patricia Beer

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.

Juliet

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,
Candlelit, unchangeable.
In this loud night the miracle
Of tomb and history go past.

Patricia Beer

Week 472: Sheep, by W.H.Davies

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.

Sheep

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.

W.H.Davies

Week 471: The Hospital, by Patrick Kavanagh

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.

The Hospital

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.

Patrick Kavanagh

Week 470: Acquainted with the Night, by Robert Frost

When I first read this poem, which would have been in my teens, I’m pretty sure I got it badly wrong. Personally ever since I was a child I have loved being out at night – the moon casting its copper glow on flat white shapes of broken cloud like ice-floes, the peppery scent of leaves in the autumnal darkness of a lane, in winter the gray silk of frost on pavements glittering with a million points of light – and I took this at first to be a celebration by a fellow enthusiast, similarly revelling in the quiet and solitude. It later dawned on me that this was much more a poem of alienation, in which Frost is using external darkness to mirror the darker side of his own often troubled mind. And yet I wonder if I was not totally wrong the first time, if there is after all a hint of relish in that alienation, that apartness, in being, as Frost puts it in another poem, ‘the exception/I like to think I am in everything’. Either way, it is a fine evocation of that halfworld that most of us these days simply draw the curtains against.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Robert Frost

Week 469: Anniversaries, by Douglas Dunn

This week another poem from Douglas Dunn’s 1985 volume ‘Elegies’, written in memory of his first wife who died young. It is a collection that I find intensely moving, and also very skilful: I love the lilting movement of poems like this.

Note on the last verse: the beautifully precise word ‘longanimous’ means ‘patient with a suggestion of long-suffering’ – I believe Dunn was a goodish club-level runner in his younger days, so I take it the image here is one of his wife coming along even in the rain to cheer him on.

Roukenglen, Kelvingrove and Inchinnan are names associated with the Glasgow area of Renfrewshire.

Anniversaries

Day by nomadic day
Our anniversaries go by,
Dates anchored in an inner sky,
To utmost ground, interior clay.

It was September blue
When I walked with you first, my love,
In Roukenglen and Kelvingrove,
Inchinnan’s beech-wood avenue.

That day will still exist
Long after I have joined you where
Rings radiate the dusty air
And bangles bind each powdered wrist.

Here comes that day again.
What shall I do? Instruct me, dear,
Longanimous encourager,
Sweet soul in the athletic rain
And wife now to the weather.

Douglas Dunn

Week 468: Prayer, by Dana Gioia

This week a strange but hauntingly lyrical poem by the American poet Dana Gioia (b. 1950), a sturdy defender of such unfashionable values in verse as form and meaning, whose work has steadily grown on me over the years. I think the key to this poem lies in the death of the poet’s firstborn son in infancy (see also week 140). But who or what exactly is being addressed in this prayer of intercession, and being described in the remarkable series of kennings that form the poem’s build-up? Gioia has a Catholic background, but I think readers are to some extent free to make their own interpretation: God if you like, or Death, or whatever mystery lies behind the making and unmaking of this world.

Prayer

Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.

Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper travelling the wires.

Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough –
in the shadow of the rainfall,

in the brief violet darkening a sunset –
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore

and the harsh falcon its flightless young.

Dana Gioia

Week 467: To bring the dead to life, by Robert Graves

An intriguing if slightly macabre insight into Robert Graves’s way of working, though perhaps more in his role as a historical novelist than as a poet. One anecdote relates how he would become so absorbed in recreating a particular character that he would lay a place for him at dinner. I can’t say that my own forgetfulness has ever gone that far, but I will say that sometimes when translating a poem from another language I will begin by just writing out the literal meaning and then it is as if the words start to rearrange themselves, with an unseen hand suggesting a rhyme here, a rhythm there, and I am no more than a passive observer watching patterns in a verbal kaleidoscope swirl and settle. As a firm rationalist I don’t believe that this is anything more than some kind of mental muscle memory at work, but I can see how those so inclined might feel that there is something spooky going on.

To bring the dead to life

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
 
Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
 
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
 
Assemble tokens intimate of him —
A ring, a hood, a desk:
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.
 
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.

Robert Graves

Week 466: Cofio, by Waldo Williams

Waldo Williams (1904-1971) ranks as one of the most influential and beloved of twentieth-century Welsh-language poets, a mystic, pacifist, Welsh nationalist and passionate teacher. His country was the Preselis, an upland range in north Pembrokeshire, that I walked the length of a few years back, a wild lonely land of wind and sheep, tumbledown cairns, Bronze Age tracks dark and springy with peat, wheatears perched on doleritic outcrops and the mewling cry of buzzards overhead.

‘Cofio’ is one of Waldo’s most celebrated poems, dealing with memory and things beyond memory. The translation that follows is my own.

Cofio

Un funud fach cyn elo’r haul o’r wybren,
Un funud fwyn cyn delo’r hwyr i’w hynt,
I gofio am y pethau anghofiedig
Ar goll yn awr yn llwch yr amser gynt.
 
Fel ewyn ton a dyr ar draethell unig,
Fel cân y gwynt lle nid oes glust a glyw,
Mì wn eu bod yn galw’n ofer arnom –
Hen bethau anghofiedig dynol ryw.
 
Camp a chelfyddyd y cenhedloedd cynnar,
Aneddau bychain a neuaddau mawr,
Y chwedlau cain a chwalwyd ers canrifoedd
Y duwiau na ŵyr neb amdanynt ‘nawr.
 
A geiriau bach hen ieithoedd diflanedig,
Hoyw yng ngenau dynion oeddynt hwy,
A thlws i’r clust ym mharabl plant bychaìn,
Ond tafod neb ni eilw arnynt mwy.
 
O, genedlaethau dirifedi daear,
A’u breuddwyd dwyfol a’u dwyfoldeb brau,
A erys ond tawelwch i’r calonnau
Fu gynt yn llawenychu a thristáu?
 
Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,
Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un;
A oes a’ch deil o hyd mewn Cof a Chalon,
Hen bethau anghofiedig teulu dyn?

Waldo Willams

Remembrance

One brief moment as the sun is setting,
One quiet moment as the night comes on
To bring to mind the things that are forgotten,
Lost now in the dust of time long gone.

Like the white foam of waves on lonely beaches
Like the wind’s song when there is none to hear
I know that they are calling to us, vainly –
The old forgotten things we once held dear.

The cunning and the craft of early peoples
That built alike small dwelling and great hall,
The well-wrought legends lost among the ages,
The gods of old gone now beyond recall.

The little words of languages long vanished
That once were merry on the lips of men
And lovely in the lisping of small children
That no tongue now will ever speak again.

And all the earth’s unnumbered generations,
Their pious dreams and fragile piety,
Is nothing left in all those hearts but silence
Where gladness and where grief were wont to be?

Often in the dusk, as I sit lonely,
Great longing comes, to bring you all to mind.
Do heart and memory somewhere still hold you,
You old forgotten things of humankind?

Week 465: La Figlia Che Piange, by T.S.Eliot

Richard Dawkins mocked certain evolutionary naysayers for deploying what he called ‘the argument from personal incredulity’. With this in mind, I am always reluctant to criticise a literary work using what might be called ‘the argument from personal stupidity’: ‘I don’t understand this poem therefore there is something wrong with it’. And indeed there are things about this piece that I much admire, especially the hauntingly melodious third stanza. I just can’t help wishing that the poet had made it a bit clearer what is actually going on here and why.

To deal first with the title and the epigraph. ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ (The Woman Who Weeps’) is the name of a stele that Eliot once went to look for in an Italian museum. He never found the tablet, which sets the tone for the poem’s mood of aesthetic detachment: this is a construction of what might have been rather than a reconstruction of what was. This sense of unreality is reinforced by the epigraph ‘O quam te memorem virgo’ (‘Maiden, by what name shall I address you?’), which is from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, from the scene where Aeneas meets, unbeknown to him, the goddess Venus disguised as a huntress.

So the poet sees, or imagines, a woman standing at the top of a flight of stone steps. There is something ethereal about her, a creature like the sunlight that he enjoins her to weave into her hair. At first she is holding a bunch of flowers, and he tells her to clasp these to her, but then changes his mind and imagines her throwing them to the ground, presumably in a fit of pique which goes with her pained surprise and the ‘fugitive resentment’ in her eyes.

The pique and resentment are explained in the second stanza, in which the poet pictures a parting between this woman and a man whom one assumes to be her lover. There is a curious shift within the stanza from third to first person, as if the poet were having difficulty in admitting to himself that he is himself the lover and the one doing the imaginary dumping in this imaginary relationship. I don’t know why the woman’s resentment is described as ‘fugitive’, unless the implication is that the woman will soon have other admirers and will forget him

The third stanza is then one of regret for that parting. Imaginary the whole encounter may have been, but at some level of memory or dream the poet has made a choice, and that choice comes back to haunt him with a sense of perennial loss. I wonder if there is a parallel here with Edward Thomas’s poem ‘That Girl’s Clear Eyes’ where the poet has a transient encounter with a woman that comes to nothing, but then confesses that all he wanted anyway was to savour the moment without any actual human involvement: ‘Nor until now could I admit/That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain/I tasted in the stony square sunlit…’ So is Eliot’s too a poem about preferring the exquisite potentiality of a relationship to the complex and demanding actuality?

This is all a bit rarefied for my taste, and so it is that for all its fine touches I find, as so often with Eliot’s work, that there is something posed and artificial about the piece, such that it remains for me a poem under glass, that I can admire intellectually but not engage with emotionally. It would be interesting to know what others make of it.

La Figlia Che Piange

O quam te memorem virgo …

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair—
Lean on a garden urn—
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise—
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.

T.S.Eliot