On Tuesday this week I had my first experience of teaching creative writing, with a Year 12 class at my former secondary school. I used the following poem by Heather Phillipson as part of a discussion of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete, and today’s post is deeply indebted to those students’ bright and nuanced contributions. The poem thrives on overload, on the idea of an authorial style which gives so much that eventually its only point of reference is itself. From the title onwards, it’s deliberately overwhelming; which doesn’t stop Phillipson having a whale of a time.
When the City Centre’s at a Standstill, It’s Really Quite a Thrill
to Lie in the Road and Read Herman Melville
When the high street is a blackened toenail
at my foot’s stub-end, more bruised and less alive,
where’s the growling sea? The sky filled with harpoons?
Herman Melville is Herman Melville.
Herman Melville is like being in love, unsustainably.
You have to scram to the gutter, cling to Herman Melville.
Will my last, solitude-loving synapse be pumiced by loiterers?
Is there no law against junk thought? Is this modernity?
Is the only solution an unarmed cell, a sky-scraping mountain,
a single unfinishable book, no view, a revolution
involving the totally unconsumable, Herman Melville?
To answer the poem’s questions with one of my own: what’s more concrete, the high street or a blackened toenail? I would have said the latter, but my students thought otherwise, and it’s true that the high street has a physical presence that precedes its existence as a transferable concept. All high streets are alike, but on reading Phillipson’s first line you see your own local range of generic emporia, gruesomely overlaid with an image of medical trauma – specifically, of the bleak result of stunted circulation. Phillipson counterpoints this wounded, limping stasis (heavy stresses – ‘foot, ‘stub’, ‘alive’ thud unevenly along the line) with two questions that indicate a sense of bristling motion, a dynamic corporeality that goes far beyond this human ‘stub-end’.
In the second stanza, a name is given to this growling, spiky sublime, and that name is Herman Melville. His writing is compared to the fever-pitch of loving ‘unsustainably’ (an interesting choice, bringing a wispy trace of eco-consciousness to a meditation on urban ‘junk’), but before that it is wholly and emphatically compared to itself. The eight students in my group were split – some felt this pure self-identity made Melville the epitome of abstraction, a transcendent symbol that cannot or will not be otherwise expressed. As such, in the poem he possesses the ‘unfinishable’, ‘unconsumable’ quality of an endlessly-extending horizon, far from the commodification of a modern urban space. And in a sense, of course, they’re right.
But then: ‘You have to scram to the gutter, cling to Herman Melville.’ Can you cling to an abstract symbol? Here it’s more like Melville is the absolute essence of physicality; a bulwark against the flood of ‘junk thought’ and ‘loiterers’ which risks destroying the very identity of the ‘solitude-loving’ speaker on a neurological level. Along with being utterly hilarious, the first line of the third stanza gives Melville’s name a bluff monumentality, an indisputable thereness which is somehow totemic.
The esses, ells and questions in the next two lines contribute to the feeling of being ‘pumiced’, scraped into flaky pieces by the jostling presence of others who, in contrast to Melville, possess neither names nor identities outside of a group status pre-defined as criminal. But where ‘modernity’ is a series of choppy, antsy questions, Melville is all commas. We might expect the ‘solution’ Phillipson associates with the American novelist to be fixed and monolithic, but the syntax of the final stanza allows thought after thought to drift by like figures seen from the deck of a ship, strange composite images (‘an unarmed cell’, a stunning mountain followed by ‘no view’) which meld into one ‘unfinishable’ and continuous whole.
At least, the speaker seems to hope they will; the question which rounds off the sentence seems to defer the stamp of approval for this ‘only solution’ to Melville’s authority. Perhaps her own uncertainty only serves to heighten how strong (though fluid) and just how certain the figure she compares herself against is perceived to be.
For another playful modern approach to the powerful presence of Moby Dick in the general consciousness, I’d recommend this song by Harvey Danger: ‘Call me freaky, call me childish, call me Ishmael/Just call me back, and I’ll follow you around.’ And don’t forget, if you want to write for The Scallop-Shell, I’m always happy to hear from future contributors on richardtobrien AT gmail DOT com.