#6: ‘Bears generally lead solitary lives.’

Having finally got around to reading the Salt Anthology of Younger Poets cover-to-cover, I’m discovering a number of wonderful writers. One is Miranda Cichy, whose poem ‘Bear’ deftly treads the line between human and animal, and the one between the known and the unknown – or the knowable and unknowable – that lends a frisson of inexhaustible interest to relationships and poems alike.

Bear

by Miranda Cichy

We met in civilisation; someone had dressed you
in a suit. Brown hair rustled taut beneath the shirt
and nudged over the collar, I dropped my eyes
as the bear books said I should. Later I walked
to the centre of the woods to find you,

bare, clothes shed beneath the tallest tree.
Some suggest lying on the ground, and passively
waiting for the bear to lose interest. The earth
was fleshy soft, the leaves like damp confetti
as your claws trailed ragged across my back.

In the morning I passed bees like cherries
through your swollen lips, purring black and yellow
lamentations as their tiny bones cracked.
But bears generally lead solitary lives. I backed
away with my palms up, speaking calmly.

I saw you dance just once, with lumbering steps,
circling the keeper whose hands mauled your fur,
the chains looped round your paw and hers.

*

Bears have a long history of doing duty as analogues for human beings. I think it’s because they stand on their hind-legs; they can hurt us, but they can also dance like us, be hurt like us. The same Elizabethan theatre-goers who first bore witness to Shakespeare’s profound insights into the human character also went in their thousands to see these animals bound to a stake and savaged; and returned days later to the same, or similar buildings, to see Lear and Macbeth be torn apart in near-identical scenographic conditions.

The first two stanzas are two mirrored scenes, in which each protagonist in turn visits the other’s natural habitat. The vagueness of ‘civilisation’ is unable to contain the physical specifics of the animal – he chafes at the restraint of clothing, ‘brown hair… taut’, and this immutable presence induces a bashful modesty in the speaker, the speed of whose reaction is suggested by the quick-fire comma that swings the line along where we might expect a semi-colon or a full-stop to pause the scene.

Throughout the poem there’s a tension between what the bear is supposed to be like in the books, the generic figure held at a safe, italic distance, and the bodily individuality gradually depicted in the second and third stanzas, an opposition supported by Cichy’s pun: ‘bear’ vs ‘bare’, the idea and the exposed example. In his own territory, the ‘earth’ and ‘leaves’ of the forest combine to give the scene the all-embracing physicality that ‘civilisation’ lacks, but the savagery implied by that uncontainable, rustling hair is held at bay; all is ‘damp’, ‘fleshy soft’, and even bees are disarmed, turned into a sweet, soft fruit. While there’s no particular rhyme-scheme to the poem, ‘ack’ and ‘ee’ sounds drift lightly through these two stanzas, a ragged trail that holds them loosely together.

The forest encounter intermingles the dark and weird and the recognisably human – ‘confetti’ suggests a marriage, ‘in the morning’ some kind of lovers’ aubade, but as far as I remember it in Romeo and Juliet, nobody eats any bees. And the bear has a familiar blend of ferocity and sympathetic vulnerability: the light, sexualised pressure of his trailing ‘claws’ hints at their potential for violence against the ‘fleshy soft’ earth, and we hear ‘bones cracked’, but only ‘tiny’ ones. But elsewhere it is the bear we see suffering, with ‘swollen’ lips, ‘mauled’ and ‘lumbering’, a captive figure deprived of elegance.

The narrator, following the bear books’ guidance, anticipates a figure who desires solitude, but the poem belies this prescriptive certainty; there is a third figure all along, the ‘someone’ who dresses the bear in the poem’s first line who may or may not be the ‘keeper’ at the end. While Cichy’s speaker and the reader might want to imagine coercion, the ending is closer to a masochistic contract – the chains are ‘looped’, not ‘locked’, and ‘your paw and hers’ gives the third party an ursine quality, a shared bear-status from which the speaker is excluded and can only observe with an all-too-human bafflement.

*

I can think of at least two modern songs making mileage of the closeness between bears and humans – this Randy Newman classic, a parable of acceptance, and the much darker approach suggested by the Hold Steady’s raucous take on a lyric from the Game of Thrones series.  If you know any other songs or poems that play with this comparison, I’d love to hear about them.

scallop-shell

#5: ‘Your ankles make me want to party’

This is a longer poem than those I’ve featured to date on The Scallop-Shell, but when I heard it last night I knew I had to write about it. Portland, Oregon’s Matthew Dickman read to a joyously-smashed crowd of our best and brightest at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, finishing up with ‘Getting It Right’, a buoyant paean to getting it on. Dickman’s lines fizz with the all-embracing energy of Frank O’Hara and the chameleonic strangeness of desire, occasionally leaving a surprising darkness in their wake.

Getting It Right

by Matthew Dickman

Your ankles make me want to party,
want to sit and beg and roll over
under a pair of riding boots with your ankles
hidden inside, sweating beneath the black tooled leather;
they make me wish it was my birthday
so I could blow out their candles, have them hung
over my shoulders like two bags
full of money. Your ankles are two monster-truck engines
but smaller and lighter and sexier
than a saucer with warm milk licking the outside edge;
they make me want to sing, make me
want to take them home and feed them pasta,
I want to punish them for being bad
and then hold them all night long and say I’m sorry, sugar, darling,
it will never happen again, not
in a million years. Your thighs make me quiet. Make me want to be
hurled into the air like a cannonball
and pulled down again like someone being pulled into a van.
Your thighs are two boats burned out
of redwood trees. I want to go sailing. Your thighs, the long breath of
them
under the blue denim of your high-end jeans,
could starve me to death, could make me cry and cry.
Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas,
a holy place, a hill I fell in love with once
when I was falling in love with hills.
Your ass is a string quartet,
the northern lights tucked tightly into bed
between a high-count-of-cotton sheets.
Your back is the back of a river full of fish;
I have my tackle and tackle box. You only have to say the word.
Your back, a letter I have been writing for fifteen years, a smooth stone,
a moan someone makes when his hair is pulled, your back
like a warm tongue at rest, a tongue with a tab of acid on top; your spine
is an alphabet, a ladder of celestial proportions.
When I place my fingers along it there isn’t an instrument in the world
I’d rather be playing. It’s a map of the world, a time line,
I am navigating the North and South of it.
Your armpits are beehives, they make me want
to spin wool, want to pour a glass of whiskey, your armpits dripping their
honey,
their heat, their inexhaustible love-making dark.
Your arms are the arms of nations, they hail me like a cab.
I am bright yellow for them.
I am always thinking about them,
resting at your side or high in the air when I’m pulling off your shirt. Your
arms
of blue and ice with the blood running
through them. Close enough to your shoulders
to make them believe in God. Your shoulders
make me want to raise an arm and burn down the Capitol. They sing
to each other underneath your turquoise slope-neck blouse.
Each is a separate bowl of rice
steaming and covered in soy sauce. Your neck
is a skyscraper of erotic adult videos, a swan and a ballet
and a throaty elevator
made of light. Your neck
is a scrim of wet silk that guides the dead into the hours of Heaven.
It makes me want to die, your mouth, which is the mouth of everything
worth saying. It’s abalone and coral reef. Your mouth,
which opens like the legs of astronauts
who disconnect their safety lines and ride their stars into the billion and
     one
voting districts of the Milky Way.
Darling, you’re my President; I want to get this right!

*

I can’t compete with the poem itself for a killer opening, so instead I’m going to talk about verbs. There’s about a dozen of them in the first sentence alone, blitzing the reader with the sheer exuberance of things being done to things; but the narrator’s actions are all conditional, held back (barely) by his ‘want’s and ‘could’s, and the poem transfers its generative power, and the reason for its existence, to its subject. Specifically, her ankles – ‘they make me want to sing’ – it’s an invocation to a muse in superzoom. ‘Of ankles and the woman, I sing.’

In the second line, ‘want to sit and beg and roll over’ initiates a pattern of insistent but constantly-altering movement, leading up to a dizzying enjambment (‘roll over/under’) which propels us forward. The language is inexhaustibly polymorphous, jumping from milk to monster-trucks, but at the same time utterly single-minded; all the ideas spiral off from and return to a single body part, and the narrator moves from his lover’s toe to head, paying close attention to each in turn. Most get about five to seven lines in the spotlight – the ankles more than twice that.

It’s a voyage of discovery in the tradition of John Donne’s ‘roving hands’; when the spine is compared to a ‘map of the world’ to be navigated, ‘O my America! My new-found land!’ sounds a distant echo. The poem, like the lover’s thighs, is one ‘long breath’, its supple lines of varying length suggesting a single, repeatedly-reshaped observation and declaration, creating the illusion of urgency and presence in one hugely magnified moment of apostrophe. And as with Donne, the force of sexual persuasion finds darker analogues in other kinds of force; Dickman introduces undercurrents of punishment, kidnapping, revolutionary violence, as the poem sweeps forward like a forest fire, catching up everything in its wake, including the speaker.

He flits from role to role like the characters in the folk song The Two Magicians – musician, fisherman, weaver, taxi – and the lover’s spine, as map and alphabet, seems to offer the possibility of decoding and fixing that which constantly threatens to spin into intangible plurality. Image after image is cut loose like the astronauts who ‘disconnect their safety lines’, an act the poem somehow changes from sure-fire suicide into a triumph of the democratic process.

Donne is ‘all princes’ to his lover’s ‘all states’, but Dickman doesn’t limit himself to monarchy. The narrator speaks not as an unelected ruler, but a voter and a loyal citizen, reframing the previous lines as so many attempts to be the best lover he can be. The title is in the present continuous, and the final declaration of an act not yet realised, meaning that the movement underlying the poem remains uncompleted and lives beyond it, charged with potential energy. Here as elsewhere, (‘Your ass is a shopping mall at Christmas’, an astonishingly bold statement of giddy abundance), the poem gently runs its hands along the fine line between the sexy and the ridiculous, before giving up and humping it silly.

*

You can find the magazine Matthew Dickman edits, Tin House, here. He’s giving a reading at the Poetry Society in London next Thursday, May 23rd.

scallop-shell

#4: ‘The moment/is neither metrical nor imperial’.

Before reading this week’s poem by Emily Hasler, it’s worth taking a look at a potted biography of its subject, Eadweard Muybridge. A Wikipedia entry pins down a life as blocky, jerky segments, the way animals are captured in Muybridge’s photographs. Hasler’s skill is to gesture at the emptiness between the images; an unsettling absence that hovers on the borders of art’s ability to contain and relive experience.

The Animal in Motion

on Eadweard Muybridge 

Those poor hostages, trapped in their sequential cells;
forced to walk or run, to climb, to sit then stand,
stand then sit. How miserable the captive animal is,
worried away – till they lose hair, presence, weight –
with the fret of knowing they are being watched.
Their every moving part dissected. It seems a wonder
anyone does anything. Reduced to one action the body
strains to bend and lift, to step from the frame.

Beyond the frame: the black that is non-happening.
Deep as a canyon, what it is between. A space
with the capacity of sleep, the near darkness of a blink.
Barely noticed and then dismissed.  The moment
is neither metrical nor imperial, neither ends nor begins.
Each step’s a crime: the before and after and frontier within.

*

If Hasler’s poem is ‘on Muybridge’, not on Muybridge’s art, then it’s partly an exploration of the artist as framer; and though it doesn’t dwell on the shadier details of its subject’s life, there’s a sense in which he, too, is being set up for the mug-shot. We don’t see the photographer, but we see his ‘hostages’, ‘trapped’, ‘forced’ and ‘captive’; the vocabulary of a sadistic zookeeper. The zoopraxiscope Muybridge invented created for the first time the illusion of a moving image, but Hasler’s grammar focuses on the awkward separateness of each action – ‘to sit then stand,/stand then sit’. The line-break contributes to this slicing up of lived experience.

Being preserved for posterity is a drawn-out ritual to be endured, a form not of resurrection but dissection. We think of the advent of motion photography as bringing the past back to life, perhaps not questioning too much where its early subjects wanted to stay dead. The poem won’t let what ‘seems a wonder’ be a wonder, carrying on between the sixth and seventh line to raise what’s either the incomprehensibility of motion, when broken down to its component parts, or the question of who would submit their lives to such scrutiny. The image is a prison which constrains the energy of its subject.

Something about all this speaks to what poetry does (and did, before photography). To entertain an old-fashioned idea, each poem is the repository of an experience which, on each reading, can be lived again; the words on the page replay the transient human moment, even at centuries’ distance. By foregrounding the stilted, voyeuristic aspects of the gaze of Muybridge’s camera, I wonder if Hasler is asking how healthy or edifying it really is for a moment in which one participates to be prolonged beyond its time. If taking a photograph causes ‘fret’, worry, misery, there’s something uneasy about the way the poem replicates that process of repeated capture.

The structure of this sonnet also points cleverly towards the physical presence of Muybridge’s strips of film. After eight lines there is a blank space – white, not black – following which, the focus changes. But here Hasler explores what Muybridge doesn’t, or couldn’t. The concrete animal details of the first stanza – ‘hair, presence, weight’ – have been lost, like those real physical elements whose image lives on , to be replaced by the abstraction of ‘non-happening’ and words which, like the black space, are conjunctions – ‘beyond’, ‘between’, ‘before and after’.

The word order of line 10 is like a picture jolting; ideas blink in and out, flicking past the corners of our understanding. The last three lines present ‘the moment’ as something indefinable, subject to no categorization or reduction, ever-present and yet somehow never really there. Then back to the physical – a ‘step’, a ‘crime’ – which brings us to consider Muybridge’s, takes us over the frontier into the world beyond as the poem slips out of shot. Hasler ends with a rhyme, but it doesn’t quite line up. We started in an external world where every action can be pinned and labeled; we end ‘within’, far from that precision, no longer sure where anything belongs.

*

I found Hasler’s poem in the most recent issue of Transom, a great webzine whose interviews with its contributors, many of whom were disappointed at the lack of close-reading for contemporary writing, gave me this idea to start this website. More of, and on, her work is available here.

scallop-shell

#3: ‘What is now an undeciphered language.’

The title poem of John Clegg’s 2012 debut collection, Antler is an exercise in shifting perspective. It’s an elegy not simply for lost life, but a lost way of life, which evokes mortality without sentimentality and somehow comes nearest to resurrection when it takes its closest look at death. I met John on the 2008 Tower Poetry course, and have been in awe of his shamanic wisdom ever since.

Antler

by John Clegg

This was the empire of antler,
walrus ivory, soapstone and marten furs;

this was a choked democracy
around a marketplace where local kings

of seven lakes or less demanded
garrisons; this was a trading post

where silverscrap and Arab coins
by weight changed hands for whalebone.

This is a town below the mud
where ninety graves so far have been

disturbed: soldiers on stools,
two children end to end, a seamstress

wrapped in leather, seal-
hunters, shamen, priests, and one

clutching a shinbone notched
in what is now an undeciphered language.

*

There are no people in the first two lines of ‘Antler’. Or rather, there are signs of human presence detached from their makers – ‘marten furs’ only attain that name when they stop being the skin and hair of their original owners, and ‘walrus ivory’ isn’t what you call it when it’s attached to a living walrus. We see craftsmanship without the craftsmen, and an empire without its emperor; unless the antler itself is the source and seat of power. It’s certainly more durable than the people who carved it, hence the past tense; they have been replaced by the signs we recognise them by. Elsewhere in the collection, a speaker reflects: ‘Our mystics say the moss is growing us.’

But like William Golding in The Inheritors, Clegg puts flesh on nameless, ancient bones. (Being unable to date or locate the civilisation here perhaps indicates my own ignorance – at a guess, pre-modern, possibly Inuit – but there’s still a strong parallel with Golding’s imaginative paleoanthropology, even if the world of Antler is much closer to our own.) Clegg downgrades the size of the settlement; an empire is revised into a ‘marketplace’ in which the voice of the people can be heard, then to a ‘trading post’, suggesting both isolation and a link to the wider world. As he does so, the mysterious inhabitants seem more and more human, with their hands and their demands.

The same logic is at work in ‘local kings/of seven lakes or less’; another trade, of temporal power for personal poignancy. And as goods are bartered, the phonology also becomes richer, with those lapping ‘l’s, the alliteration in ‘silverscrap’, ‘weight’ and ‘whalebone’. We feel for the first time like we might be able to hear their language.

At which point, this half-imagined, half-reconstructed world is wrenched away from us, precisely as it is located within our own. Like in many of Clegg’s poems, the midpoint pivots the reader from past to present as the new tense – ‘This is’ – sheds its stark, forensic light. A town may be bigger than a trading post, but it isn’t an empire, and that ‘mud’, even as it’s dug away, re-covers the impression we were starting to form.

There’s an implication that the poet’s creative archaeology is preferable, both aesthetically and ethically, to the real thing – the jolting enjambment between the fifth and sixth stanzas makes the graves’ disturbance doubly troubling. As Hilary Mantel asked with relation to Richard III in her excellent ‘Royal Bodies’ lecture, ‘Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king?’ And from here on the line-breaks are jerkier, one even slicing through the middle of a compound word – the business of excavation displaces the text, unsettling Clegg’s assertive visions. We find no kings, just a jumble of ages and professions whose ascribed roles offer little individuation.

Until that ‘one’, in the third last line, whose ‘clutching’ gesture even in death grants him a human singularity. These are the hands in which goods were changing, folded inwards; those notches are the mark of art, finally seen next to what might be the remains of the artist. By identifying those time-worn symbols as ‘what is now an undeciphered language’, Clegg conjures the picture of a time when that language was spoken and understood. An image of transience also speaks of the life through which it passed.

*

You can find more of John Clegg’s work here and here, or buy the book from Salt. Golding’s The Inheritors is a fascinating artistic exploration of how we might see our forebears, and inspired this song by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who once in fact shared a bed with John Clegg while touring the North-East, for reasons of a wholly practical nature.

scallop-shell