#8: ‘This is the last/of the great paper archives.’

It might help, but it certainly isn’t necessary, to read some of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies before looking at ‘This One Particular Page’ by Chrissy Williams – a subtle and surprising poem which appeared in the summer issue of Poetry London and which, like the work it references, contrasts the overmastering rush of feeling to the formulas of control.

This One Particular Page

in Dunn’s notebook starts
with a short story title I’ve forgotten.
Pause. Then comes the first poem
written after his wife’s death.

A moment later we’re shown another,
the first poem printed in his book Elegies:
‘Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s
Bliss and Other Stories’.

It is almost funny, in the poem,
how the flattened fly punctuates
life in a book. This is the last
of the great paper archives.

The scholar carefully passes me
Dunn’s copy of the source book
Bliss. I hold it. An old object.
Do I think it will be funny?

‘Turn to the inside back’ he says,
‘and tell me what you see.’
‘The first draft of the poem,’ I say.
He commands me. ‘Read it.’

Starting slow, squinting in
at the black ink, biro I think,
handwritten loops, the bounce,
twirl, I read them, speeding up:

‘This is crossed out. There
is a circle drawn round that…’
Rawness is struck through,
replaced by structure, form.

Grief is formally rephrased
by a different time. I see
what I did not want to see
and choke on the final stanza.

‘Thank you,’ he says.
I pass the book along.
I cannot wait to run
out of the hall. Tears.

My face runs down the
street and I can only think
how much I want to tell you
this, how much I want

to tell you everything.

*

‘Particular’ – a word in Chrissy Williams’s title serves as an overture for the poem’s contents. We’re being inducted, guided by a deictic hand (‘a word specifying identity, or spatial and temporal location’) into a world of fine details, where what’s at stake is the power of pages to contain linguistic expression. We’re on a particular page, in a book which is a named personal artefact, looking with the speaker at a text fixed exactly in biographical time – ‘the first poem/written after his wife’s death.’

But this is a poem about that poem, and just as Dunn processes and parcels up his grief in formal structures, Williams seems to stand at a further remove of academic distance from that moment of painfully-naked feeling: this is neither the grief, nor the poem about the grief, but ‘the last/of the great paper archives.’ Like Dunn’s poem, it’s in quatrains, though without the ‘formally rephrased’ effect of rhyme (at a ‘different time’ again), and the speaker is a passive recipient of archival knowledge – ‘we’re shown another’, the pages turn, and the plain, declarative language holds back any emotional involvement. Humour seems to be the one exception – the fly in Dunn’s book is ‘almost funny’, a feeling on the verge of breaking out of the ‘old object’ which the ‘scholar carefully passes’ to the speaker. Even life – the fly – has become punctuation. The first four stanzas are practically wearing white gloves.

And yet – even the first isn’t wholly self-contained. It only works as a run-on from the title; the cautious formalism undercut by overspill. There’s a note of human frailty in the second line – the speaker has ‘forgotten’ the story title, and it’s unclear which figure is pausing, or why. By the end of the fourth stanza, there’s self-doubt in the voice, as the reality of the original object threatens to unsettle her perceptions of the poem as a sanitised printed text.

As the archive visitor engages with the manuscript, her account becomes more traditionally poetic – in ‘starting slow’ and ‘speeding up’, the sixth stanza has a pair of formal bookends, and in ‘ink’ and ‘think’ an internal rhyme. Commas reproduce the experience of the textual encounter; we ‘squint’ at the lines divided up into short syntactic units, few of which make full sense by themselves. We follow Williams into the thicket of Dunn’s scribbles and strike-throughs. The deictic terms return – ‘This is crossed out. There/is a circle drawn round that…’ – but there’s a sense in which they’re no longer appropriate, as if on peeking behind the curtain of ‘structure, form’, we too might have seen what we ‘did not want to see.’

In response to the messiness of Dunn’s own exposed process, the individuality of Williams’s speaker begins to emerge in a few concise moments of crisis – ‘Tears’ fill the same space as that possibly-significant ‘Pause’, and a lyric ‘I’ bursts out of the scholarly background to choke, pass, run, think, want and tell, the voice now utterly active. The sense of personal response is so vivid that the ‘I’ is magnified to a running face, then to a single desire. As if from nowhere, an addressee springs into being in the third-last line, and the single-minded urge towards communication explodes through the constraints of the form to deliver a stark, isolated, all-consuming message. The archives – their dryness, their restrained respect for order – inspire an interpersonal urgency which abandons them completely in its wake. Williams runs like a track star for Mineola Prep, and she doesn’t turn around. How could she, after such epiphanies?

scallop-shell

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