#2: ‘Only the cusk eel/and the goblin shark’

Three Icelandic students recently developed an app that warns users if they are related to an attractive stranger they meet in a bar. The UK poetry scene isn’t that incestuous, but it’s a small world, and occasionally I’ll be writing about work by people I know in person. When that’s the case, as it is today, I think it’s fair to let you know. Today’s poem is by Rachel Piercey, who I’ve met a couple of times, and is published by the wonderful Emma Press, of which more later. In ‘Sea bed’ Piercey takes us down to somewhere words can’t go, and returns with something salvaged from the deep.

Sea bed
by Rachel Piercey

Every sound is pressed out,
every ghost of light.
My miles of skin

feel each force pack it tight.
Only the cusk eel
and the goblin shark

scuff impassively against me,
half-suspended themselves.
I remember one

whose arm smashed me
whose fluke raked through me
who split my heart and held it.

*

In its quiet, poised way, this poem achieves something remarkable: it speaks from, and of, a world where it can’t be heard. There’s a thrill as a reader in receiving dispatches from a place to which you can never physically travel, whether or not it exists, but even if we could get to the bottom of the Earth’s oceans, have you ever tried to speak underwater? ‘Every sound is pressed out’ – even the ‘ragged claws’ Prufrock dreams of becoming scuttle across the ‘floors of silent seas’. Which means that every underwater poem (and there’s a few around) is a victory of sorts: of descriptive language over an element which stifles all human speech.

‘Sound’, ‘pressed’, ‘out’, ‘ghost’, ‘light’ – Piercey’s first two lines pile on that deep-sea pressure with their end-stopped consonants, all in words on which the stresses weigh heavily. Oceanographer Gene Feldman writes that the force exerted by the water above you at the deepest point would be equivalent to ‘one person trying to support fifty jumbo jets’. I don’t think this speaker is going anywhere, and the length of the lines doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre. Having systematically wiped out two senses by the end of the first stanza, ‘Sea-bed”s narrator becomes a creature of nothing but touch and, later, of a memory which is almost physical.

In this ‘half-suspended’ space, thoughts float between stanzas; the speaker’s ‘miles of skin’ (Is she human? Is this just amplification, or ventriloquism?) expand into the second block of verse, before a full rhyme – ‘tight’ – holds them in place. Below the alliteration of ‘feel’ and ‘force’, there’s a deeper sound-patterning – ‘s’, ‘c’ and ‘k’ slide and scrape all the way through the poem, coming to the fore here as a ‘cusk eel […] scuff[s]’ against the speaker. If you’re going to look up the goblin shark, I suggest you don’t do so too late at night. But maybe the poem takes heart from the survival of life in extreme conditions – 95% of the oceans remain unmapped, but at least there’s something down there, ‘impassively’ getting on with its days.

Either way, this fleeting submarine contact recalls another, this one so strong that it breaks the suspension of full-stops and commas, diving through the white space to the end of the poem in one unpunctuated breath. Going from ‘whose’ to ‘who’ takes us from the attributes of smashing arm and raking fluke (an anchor’s point; a harpoon’s hook; and still a stroke of luck, somehow?) directly to the person to whom both belong. It reads at first like a whaler’s attack, and it might be, but the speaker’s heart was held after it was split; or perhaps simultaneously. Tenderness, barbarism, or both? And if ‘held’ is in the past tense, what’s happened since? The sea bed, like any other kind, won’t give up all its secrets.

*

‘Sea bed’ appears in The Flower and the Plough, which you can buy here – the collection features beautiful, charming black-line illustrations by maverick publisher and polymath Emma Wright. Emma’s still accepting submissions for The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, none of which is so far sea-themed, so if you have something aquatic or otherwise matching the brief, dive in. My favourite underwater poem is Paul Farley’s ‘The Sea in the Seventeenth Century’, but I’d like to hear what yours are; and I don’t know how far back the topic dates, so the earlier the better.

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#1: ‘The machinery of grace is always simple.’

I’m going to start with a question: when does the contemporary become the classic? It’s appropriate for a poem about one thing neatly, seamlessly becoming another, even as the speaker asks whether his words can ever turn into action – a transformation which would erase them completely. Michael Donaghy’s ‘Machines’, first published in 1988 wants to write itself out of existence, but we can all be glad it doesn’t quite succeed. Here’s the poem:

Machines
by Michael Donaghy

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

*

‘Machines’ does what a lot of great love poems do – it reaches out across an absence, to create the illusion of presence. It’s a substitute for human contact, a self-proclaimed attempt to bridge the gap between the speaker – here – and the addressed, however far away. The word ‘addressed’ seems more than usually literal; ‘Dearest’ reads like the start of a letter, and the poem shares some of the anxiety of a correspondent unsure of how his words will be received. We know what ‘this talk […] should’ do, and what will happen ‘if it doesn’t’; whether it achieves its goals or not is ultimately up to us. Though described as mere ‘talk’, the poem on the page or screen is now a physical reality which replaces a moment of physical contact, of ‘touch if I were there’; even that touch, however, is subservient to the following ‘should’, the lovers’ predicted reunion shot through with a conditional uncertainty.

This uncertainty is what the poem works against, even while it evokes it, with its images of delicate balance, ‘effortless gadgetry’, ‘the machinery of grace’. The second rhyme-word, even, is part of this formal and romantic trapeze act – if you don’t know (as I didn’t) that the stress in ‘Purcell’ falls on the first syllable, you’re going to tumble nose over tail. But, musical ignorance negotiated, we carry on, and the poem points up the precarity of its own formal structure. After a relatively neat and tidy first stanza, the right-hand margin starts to veer widely – long lines lean out, and short ones pull back in, like a cyclist correcting his movement after a tricky corner. The closing couplet lines are among the shortest in the poem, bringing everything back before moving tentatively forward. And look at the start of the penultimate stanza – ‘So much is chance’ hanging out into the white space, way beyond its comfort zone, almost alone out there. The whole poem nearly topples forward, and it takes another two lines for the metre to right itself; the fifteenth line is iambic, but all those esses feel a little like pedals spinning.

Of course, at fifteen lines, ‘Machines’ has missed the chance to be the sonnet we might have assumed it was going to be, with that big gear-change volta nine lines in. Caught up (or pretending to be) in its own ‘desire and feverish care’, it over-reaches, goes too far, but somehow balances, nervously informing us of the necessity of ‘agility’ before going on to display just that. The poem only gets away with being such an ‘effortless’ show-off – ‘look, no hands!’ – because Donaghy can pull off the trick.

I know very little about Purcell and Dante, and nothing at all about Ptolemy and Schwinn, but part of the point of ‘Machines’ is that it makes its components disappear, which is one step towards its stated desire to ‘melt into the air’ completely. But if it did, we’d never know it had existed, which seems like a worse fate than the fall the narrator foresees, with acceptance more than fear. It’s all a question of balance.

*

If you want to hear Donaghy read his own poem, and find out more about his work, there’s a nice recording available here. Donaghy died in 2004, at the age of 50, and many UK poets cite his workshops as a formative influence – hence the question at the top of this post.

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