‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’, writes Jack Underwood, in his own entry into the Vendée Globe which is the expression of poetic melancholy. And though the poem starts with the thudding impact of immovable misery, Underwood’s lightness of touch charms away its weight, somehow ending on a note of quiet reflection.
Sometimes your sadness is a yacht
huge, white and expensive, like an anvil
dropped from heaven: how will we get onboard,
up there, when it hurts our necks to look?
Other times it is a rock on the lawn, and matter
can never be destroyed. But today we hold it
to the edge of our bed, shutting our eyes
on another opened hour and listening
to our neighbours’ voices having the voices
of their friends around for lunch.
At the risk of evoking GOB from Arrested Development, it isn’t easy making a yacht disappear. In presenting the title as an inseparable part of the poem, Underwood gives his addressee’s sadness an intractable quality – the emotional state exists before the metaphor found to express it, and before the writing is even allowed to get out of the starting blocks; or in the case, I suppose, the marina. There’s a sense of implied familiarity: hello sadness, my old friend. But that first word, ‘Sometimes’, allows us some respite; perhaps the sadness described isn’t always so palpable, so heavily present.
The white space between title and first line mirrors the cartoonish dropping anvil, allows a breath which ‘huge’ knocks out of us. Along with the two adjectives that follow, it establishes a semi-comic visual image which works according to the logic of metaphor – by naming an object as the vehicle for a more abstract experience, we give it form and definition, but also in a sense begin to explain it away. For a moment, the sadness and the yacht co-exist, like overlapping slides; by ‘expensive’, the emotion itself is beginning, if only temporarily, to drift out of view.
What yachts and sadness share is a certain persistence, the property of matter which ‘can never be destroyed’. In the first five lines, up to the volta of ‘destroyed’, this pervasiveness alters the language. The standard question ‘How do I get to Heaven?’ is reframed as ‘how will we get onboard?’; even heaven seems to be another melancholic vessel, and what can we take from the fact that heaven seems to be where sadness comes from?
Well, perhaps some comfort. Having found two concrete correlatives for the nebulous state of sorrow, Underwood also gets specific in temporal terms, replacing the hazy (because repeated) categories ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Other times’ with a here-and-now in which the problem can be directly confronted: ‘but today’. The layout lends a hand to the Sisyphean task of rolling away a rock: ‘today we hold it/to the edge of the bed’ sees sadness heaved over the line-break; there is no space for it to re-enter the clipped and mostly monosyllabic line which follows, and in the blink which constitutes the stanza division, it disappears completely.
So what is this poem without sadness? In the place of neck-craning visual stimulus, we have silent listening, and instead of choppy, agitated punctuation, one long, becalmed, unbroken moment. ‘Opened hours’ implies the forcible, recalling the victim in Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’ whose ‘mind/Lay open like a drawer of knives’; but this is precisely what’s being ignored, for the present. All that exist for the speaker and addressee are voices interacting with other voices – words in the air, drifting through the walls. It’s a far cry from the substantiality with which this creative attempt to process the suffering of another person started; and even if it’s only temporary, the almost-equal weighting of the two halves of the poem suggest it’s just about enough.
Would you like to write for The Scallop-Shell? Having got the project underway, I’m now welcoming posts from guest contributors, so if you’d like to give your take on a poem – contemporary or classic, it’s your own engagement which is most important – then please get in touch on richardtobrien [AT] gmail [DOT] com, and we can discuss the format and the work you would like to cover for the blog.