#17: ‘the song/of a slant moon’

Having spent the last week at the Edinburgh Fringe, I wanted to write about a Scottish poet; and who better than Roddy Lumsden, a writer and editor who has taught and published many of the poets featured on this blog to date, myself included. From Lumsden’s 2009 collection Third Wish Wasted, ‘Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing’ takes a typically slanted look at the vagaries of chance and fate.

Between the Penny Dropping and the Penny Landing

by Roddy Lumsden

The things we want most we will never have.

We learned this when we overheard the song
of a slant moon which wraps the land below,
which courts significance in every corner,
spreads the blueshift, ekes the silver rose

and finds the coin, mid-fall, which will decide
the night for us: the half-chance sounding lower
than a cat step or a spinning leaf or raindrops
meeting on a skylight. Moonlight hones

the bidden street. While the penny spins,
pale beams catch on a lost key in a nest,
roll over roofs and drop into the alley,
and we are shadows in that alley. Only

when I used up all my nos did I say yes.

*

It seems strange, that a poem about the toss of a coin should begin with such certainty. Lumsden bluntly declares a lesson learned about the frustration of desire, the moral of the story announced before its events are even set in motion. There’s a sense of predetermination here, supported by the steady iambic rhythm, which is at odds with the proverbial evocation of randomness and probability – but who is ‘we’ here, and how generally does the line apply?

As the poem continues Lumsden narrows down the field of reference, suggesting two people out beneath the stars whose evening could go either way. Having started with something definite – the act of learning – we move on to a series of ‘half-chance’s where things teeter on their edges, from the ‘slant moon’ which itself obliquely approaches an evasive significance, to the leaf and coin it finds, each suspended in unsustainable motion. The street is ‘hone[d]’ by moonlight – reduced to a thinner, sharper version of itself, and the human characters are replaced by their own ‘shadows’, something inbetween and imprecise.

And the rhymes, too, slant and shift: the sonnet structure implies a form which sound-similarities bear out, but do we associate ‘hones’ with ‘rose’, or ‘hones’ with ‘spins’ and ‘rose’ with ‘below’? Are ‘corner’ and ‘lower’ a pair, or a mere resemblance? Connections come into focus, and dance away again like the central spinning penny whose ‘fall’ Lumsden prolongs for a full nine lines, never quite announcing its result.

The extended space of the spin opens up a liminal urban landscape whose very uncertainty allows romance, in the form of courting, moonlit ‘meeting’ and a thoroughfare ‘bidden’ like a summoned lover. The penny’s circulation defers decision, so that the eye can ‘catch’ on these separate images and ideas like the beams on the key in the poem’s fourth stanza. But just as an item – the key – starts to come into focus, the formerly expansive verbs (‘spreads’, ‘ekes’, ‘wraps’) speak of a more certain downward movement: ‘catch’, ‘roll’, ‘drop’. The possibilities are beginning to be closed off.

Lumsden, however, keeps us in suspense, with a final sentence which splits its declaration across both line- and stanza-breaks. The poem comes to earth in a space more clearly defined than any so far, though the characters are still outside, the lost key and the nest both gesturing towards a home that neither person in the narrative seems to have to go to. And just as the alley as a location is a chosen space which excludes all other options, and the use of ‘I’ shuts down the generalities of the previous pronouns, the narrator indicates the vast range of alternative possibilities – ‘all my nos’ – he has discarded before settling on his final choice.

The probability of a coin landing on each of its two sides is ostensibly equal, but the unequal distribution of ‘nos’ and ‘yes’es playfully undermines whatever else the poem might seem to say about the workings of chance. Although it begins with a seeming sureness, it’s hard to tell if the poem ends in favour of fate or of free will; the speaker having had just long enough to be able to make the right choice after all the wrong ones. But it’s by suspending all of these choices in the air that the poem finds the time it needs to convert a negative sentiment into something positive; even if, like Joyce, Lumsden conserves his ‘yes’ for the very last moment possible.

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#16: ‘Her French was wasted/in the north.’

First, I’m sorry that the update schedule recently has been less than regular – I’ve been travelling, and until the end of August I might not be able to post as often as usual. With that in mind, here’s a poem which also touches on travel. In Helen Mort’s ‘Miss Heath’, a literal state of being out-of-place sheds light on an emotional journey towards adulthood, refracted through a subject who would surely appreciate the poem’s impeccable poise.

Miss Heath

At seventy, our dance mistress
could still perform
a perfect pas des chats.

Her French was wasted
in the north. We stood in line
repeating parr-durr-shat

or sniggered
as she waited in the wings,
her right hand beating time

against her hip, her eyes
avoiding ours. She never
made the stage.

It took me twenty years
to understand. Alone tonight
and far from home

in shoes that pinch my toes
until they bleed, my back
held ballerina straight,

I wait as she did, too afraid
to walk into a bar
where everyone’s a stranger,

see her glide
across the city night
to meet me, tall and white

and slim. A step behind,
she clicks her fingers. Elegant,
she counts me in.

*

Between Mort’s pamphlet a pint for the ghost, and its forthcoming appearance in her debut book Division Street, ‘Miss Heath’ seems to have lost part of its title. I knew it as ‘a chaser for miss heath’, and that element of tribute, of raising a glass, is no less central to the poem. A chaser is, after all, a follow-up, which alters or complicates an initial flavour. It’s a palate-cleanser for initial bitterness. Similarly, Mort’s comments on Miss Heath’s ‘perfect’ abilities soon shift into a portrait of a sad and lonely figure, isolated from the crowd of younger girls who stand rigidly ‘in line’ before their old-fashioned ‘mistress’, flattening her sophistication into inadvertent scatology, leaving the strong taste which is necessary to set up the poem’s valedictory ending.

Much of the melancholy in these lines stems from their declarative simplicity: the bluntness of ‘or sniggered’ as an unruly rebuff to the time-keeper’s attempts to maintain control, the lesson concluding with a stark awareness that ‘She never/made the stage’. Just as Miss Heath’s eyes avoid her pupils’, the section of the poem set in the ballet class deliberately falls short of elegance – there are no metaphors, no adjectives, just mechanical verbs suggesting the preparations for a performance on which the curtain never goes up.

In fact, the lesson is never called a lesson, perhaps because, as Mort stresses, the learning happened so much later: ‘It took me twenty years/to understand.’ But more than half of the poem is given over to the growing recognition of Miss Heath’s importance, and the more Mort keeps the details vague (‘far from home’, explaining neither where nor why), the more her example takes on a totemic, transferable power. Wherever she is now, Mort’s speaker is the one who is ‘alone’, keeping her distance from a world of strangers. The toe-pinching shoes she wears have nothing to do with dancing; this self-inflicted pain is now an adult choice, not a child’s obligation. There’s no suggestion that this young girl has grown up to make the stage herself (except, perhaps, as a poet), and even the ‘ballerina’ posture she has retained is not itself enough to propel her confidently onward.

The beauty of the last two stanzas is in how the image, or the ghost, of the dance mistress arrives unbidden; twenty years on from their first awkward encounter, the figure who was once exiled to the wings takes on all the grace and fluency her tuition was supposed to represent. Her stately ‘glide’ is mirrored in the language, as the vowel-sounds (‘glide’, ‘night’, ‘white’, ‘behind’) synchronise for the first time in the text. Her physical poise (‘tall and white//and slim’) seems to transcend her age, and her position – ‘A step behind’ – is at once that of an outmoded straggler and an attentive mentor, gently gesturing forward. Within the world of the poem, it’s not too late to recognise her elegance, and Mort ends with a touching suggestion: Miss Heath’s persistence in her stranded situation was once ridiculous, but it has now, however belatedly, given her student the strength to begin.

*

Helen Mort won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition a frankly fearsome number of times, and was the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She read at the winners’ event in my own first year as an FYP, and her first collection is coming out on Chatto & Windus. I once interviewed her for French radio about her role judging the Foyle’s competition, which you can hear here if you so desire.

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#15: ‘Where’s/the actual carnival?’

Although The Scallop-Shell mostly exists to talk about whole poems, a writer caught my attention this week who has very little short work online. Paul Abbott’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival‘ features in A Tower Miscellany, an anthology of poems by young writers associated with the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize. The playful formalism of this opening extract points towards the concerns of the whole text: it presents both a mass of sensory stimuli, and a mind searching for meaning in them all, with a vivid sense of place which emerges partly from looking in all the wrong ones.

from Notting Hill Carnival

by Paul Abbott

August bank holiday in Notting Hill,
Stuck in a two-thirds empty sushi bar,
I drink the cheapest soup dish on the menu
And discuss tactics: entry points, how far,
To walk or haggle, Who’s Who. Then the bill
Comes, and I pay. Pay cash, says Jimmy, then you
Won’t waste your cash on beer
. We all decide
Vaguely to join the one-way crowd outside,

And it begins, this packed conveyor belt
Of costumes, crowded streets, and creditcards.
Scaffolded billboards boast of low gun-crime,
And the Olympic Games. In strewn frontyards
A hustling local sells canned drinks: a melt
Of watered-down Bacardi, ice, and lime.
Above the press, a greying pigeon skirls
Through the tall air. Indifferent teenage girls

Lounge in the packed heat. We keep walking. Where’s
The actual carnival?
I ask, as out
Of sight, down Portobello Road, a float
Trawls sullenly away through a tired shout
Of casual-clothed spectators. Shrugs and stares
Follow, uselessly. Noise sticks in my throat.
I think the carnival is further down,
Says Jimmy, so we push on further down[…]

*

‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ This line by Yeats (a crucial poet for Tower judge Peter McDonald) seems to hover behind Abbott’s wanderings. The poem’s speaker is a tourist and flaneur, seeking a definitive experience which will transform the ‘packed conveyor belt’ of human lives from a ‘one-way crowd’, an undifferentiated ‘tired shout’, into one singular and tangible event, ‘the actual carnival’. Sticking with the early twentieth century, the plain-spoken, compressed diction (‘strewn frontyards’, ‘casual-clothed spectators’) and conversational enjambments gesture to the lighter side of Auden. But there’s a shade of Eliot in the impulse for this faceless human drift to coalesce into the still point to which all its motion tends, prolonged by the speaker’s own relentless searching: ‘we keep walking.’

From the start, the voice is separate, ‘stuck’ (‘I drink’… ‘I pay’), taking a friend’s advice on proper conduct for an event so novel and enormous it requires the ‘tactics’ and ‘entry points’ of a military campaign. Though technically he’s on the inside looking out (the bar is ‘two-thirds empty’; the crowd is ‘outside’), the sentiment is that of an outsider looking in. When ‘it begins’, a unified event is suggested, but everywhere the speaker goes he encounters plurals: ‘costumes’, ‘girls’, the imprecision of unpalatable noise. There are other ‘spectators’ too, who also shrug and stare (‘uselessly’, though we might ask, to whom?) But even these are ‘out of sight’; the quest appears to be for anyone or anything who stops just looking long enough to be looked at.

Abbott’s early focus on rules and details seems at odds with the emerging desire to blend in, to join a crowd which finds itself reflected in the ‘melt’ of Caribbean punch. Here, too, there’s a tension between general and specific – the ‘hustling local’ is a single figure, but he operates ‘in strewn frontyards’, seemingly everywhere at once. And maybe there’s a comment here on the inherent danger of making an individual an archetype; later Abbott writes: ‘The strangers I ignored/were the whole show.’ And if the strangers are a ‘show’, distinguished partly by their ‘parodies of ethnic food’, then they seem ‘saleable’ as much as the billboards promising the highly-branded Olympic Games. Perhaps the tendency to look for an aesthetic whole is what frustrates the possibility of real connection.

The rarity of end-stopped lines contributes to the feeling of restless exploration – caesuras stop us in mid-line, followed by new sentences which hustle us along, so much that even stanza-breaks aren’t really breaks. The pigeon is the only figure in the poem which manages to exist ‘above the press’, granted the privilege of a comprehensive view – the human characters are always among, between, or just around the corner from the action. Jimmy, with his uncertainty, takes on the attributes of a Virgilian guide, persuading the group to ‘push on further down’, but the identical rhyme declares this change will bring more of the same.

As the poem continues, Abbott moves onwards through a ‘carnival/That isn’t there’ towards a ‘moral’ which is not a moral, followed as it is by the renewed desire to ‘discover something final’. But finality is not the purpose of a carnival; it’s a time of reversal, instability and flux, all things the poem reveals while trying its hardest to avoid them. You can see how it develops here, closing with an image which reminds me of ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘. As in Larkin’s poem, transcendence can’t be sought, and shouldn’t seem hard-won. Its power is in surprise.

*

The Christopher Tower Prize is a themed competition for poets aged 16-18 which since 1999 has offered winners both a palpable sense of achievement and real cash money. They were kind enough, in 2008, to commend one of my own early poems, a slightly gauche collision of Catholicism and oral sex (always good to start as you mean to go on.) This year’s winners, on the theme ‘The Details’, were announced in April. I’m not sure if Paul Abbott was a winner or a Tower summer school participant, and I’m not sure if he’s still writing now, but Clutag Press brought out his debut pamphlet ‘Flood’ in 2008, and I doubt I’m the only person hoping for a second edition.

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