#20: ‘imposed fruit’

Penny Boxall is a poet whose work has interested me since I first encountered it in The Salt Book of Younger Poets, and I was pleased to discover at the reading she gave at last week’s Poetry Book Fair that she now has a debut collection, Ship of the Line, forthcoming in February from Eyewear. So today on the Scallop-Shell I’m excited to have an exclusive: ‘Pentimenti’, a cleverly-constructed poem which suggests that, whatever traces an artist might try to conceal, the work always reveals more than intended.

Pentimenti
by Penny Boxall

The artist regrets, regrets on top of varnish,
                                                              erases his old certainties with fresh paint.
He lays on new strokes that will surely flake
                                                              and fail because they have no other thing
to cling to, but he can’t bear the work as it is.
                                                              In time the ghost of his intention will shine
through, his mistakes will find their way.
                                                              The sudden trees will not successfully obscure
the lounging naked nymphs he planted there before.
                                                              A baby’s face will triumph through imposed fruit,
and the misjudged hand, lying in the woman’s lap,
                                                              will betray its excess fingers, given time.
There is no room for error. He must make
                                                              his first try better than his last mistake.

*

‘Pentimenti’ is a term taken from art criticism which denotes ‘an alteration in a painting, evidenced by traces of previous work’; the second layer of paint masking the first attempt which cannot be erased. It’s a creative palimpsest of build-up and overlay, and the structure of Boxall’s poem echoes its subject, each odd-numbered line extending a few characters into the space occupied by the line below.

That is, if we read the work as fourteen separate textual units; the frequency of enjambment (often used to carry over a single extended clause, one complete grammatical thought – as, for example, in the final sentence) might suggest seven long lines, each with a ‘drop’ in the centre breaking up the text. We have the choice, as readers, between seeing the perfection of a sonnet and the inevitable messiness of overextension – a choice wholly appropriate to a poem, which stages the emergence of disparate and divergent elements from what initially looks like unity.

Boxall begins with a repetition – ‘regrets, regrets’, which not only introduces the theme of ineffective repentance present in her title’s Italian roots, but also the consequences of alteration. ‘Erasure’ is impossible, but once the ‘old certainties’ of the original have been supplanted each new version is as slippery as the ‘varnish’ on which it balances, doomed to an eternal incompleteness which no amount of artistry can supply.

As such, the adverb ‘surely’ applies paradoxically to a state of structural instability, and because the artist ‘can’t bear’ his own work, he introduces new elements which the work itself is unable to physically bear. Boxall seems not to declare priority – each alteration is an inevitable failure, but the alternative is a series of intractable ‘mistakes’. There’s a depressing sense of entropy, or perhaps predestination, embodied by the future-tense modal verbs – ‘will […] flake/and fail’, ‘will shine/through’. ‘Time’ appears twice as the agent of this unmasking, the Great Revealer, and ‘ghost’, ‘betray’ and ‘triumph’ cumulatively suggest something like the haunting of Macbeth, unable to suppress the tell-tale signs of former errors of judgement (to put it lightly.)

Luckily in Boxall’s poem no one is being murdered in their bed, but there is a gentle implied criticism of some of the artist’s decisions – the ‘lounging naked nymphs’ which he wishes to ‘obscure’ suggesting a kind of hasty shame, the hand ‘lying in the woman’s lap’ perhaps also gesturing towards a ‘misjudged’ or misplaced eroticism. These particularly male ‘error’s are indicative of a certain human frailty which the poem charitably acknowledges, and for which more classical conceptions of the role of art do not have room.

This tussle, between the creator’s flawed personality and the supposed timeless wholeness of an artwork, informs the increasing formality of register – ‘The sudden trees will not successfully obscure…’; ‘A baby’s face will triumph through imposed fruit’ – as all agency is stripped away, to be replaced by a remorseless and impersonal narration. We can see, in miniature, the judgement of Romantic individualism against stringent classical standards.

Which is not to say that this is a judgemental poem: it does, admittedly, end with the word ‘mistake’, and ‘He must make..’ speaks of an impossible uphill struggle. A ‘first try’ cannot exist simultaneously with a ‘last mistake’, at least on the same canvas, and so in some sense the battle is already lost; can any ‘try’ in this context, however distinct from previous errors, ever be the ‘first’? But in this very awareness of impossibility, Boxall hints at the power of art to speak for a flawed humanity which, if not capable of perfection, can always fail again and fail better.

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#19: ‘Oh Tickle.’

Last Saturday saw the Poetry Book Fair in London’s Conway Hall. The Fair brought a veritable menagerie of independent publishing talent together under one off, from the big beasts to the small and curious creatures. One such publisher was Sidekick Books – I picked up Riotous, a collection of sonnets by founder-editors Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, themed around the animals in a Tropical Zoo at Hounslow Urban Farm, whose website currently leads with the delightful headline THE WAIT IS OVER, OUR DONKEY MAGGIE HAS FINALLY GIVEN BIRTH TO A BEAUTIFUL FOAL. Irving’s poem ‘Military Macaw’ is one of many highlights in a bright and beautiful hand-bound modern bestiary which playfully tests the limits of anthropomorphism.

Military Macaw
by Kirsten Irving

Oh Tickle. Horn claws shackled to my flesh,
your grass and fuchsia uniform worn fine
around your middle, in a greying sash,
you’re part-lieutenant, part-sad Valentine.
For 15 years you’ve nursed her memory;
her small-skulled nuzzle, posture like a prow,
you two pressed close in cameraderie;
bright skittles, or two apples on a bough.
Her name was never LouLou; that was theirs,
and yours was different too, though ‘Tickle’ does,
and we’re not her, not one of us who offers
our limb to you, yet still you come to us.
At leaving time, you scratch and peck so fierce
and squawk her name, and hope somehow she hears.

*

Most poetry about animals is zoopsychological guesswork. Macaws might mimic human speech, but they don’t know what they’re saying, and this tantalising suggestion of kinship aside, they share in the opacity of their fellow subjects in the animal kingdom. Being like us and not like us, the impenetrable mystery of the inner lives of other species is a fruitful source of human creativity. Riotous features multiple mentions of its chosen creatures’ eyes, the windows to that shuttered inner world, but there’s no soul-gazing here. Instead we start with a name: the cutesy ‘Tickle’, apostrophised by Irving with what reads half as tenderness, half as commiseration.

Though it’s another, pulling in a different direction, which determines our initial filters – the species name, ‘Military Macaw’, frames Irving’s visual presentation of the bird – the ‘uniform’ and ‘sash’ of a lovelorn ‘part-lieutenant’, whose late partner evokes the ‘prow’ of a naval vessel and who together shared the ‘cameraderie’ of a close-knit unit. Until the very end of the poem, Tickle is only spoken to and spoken about, his loss vicariously mourned. This version of the macaw is created by and bound to its observer – ‘shackled to my flesh’ – who parcels her interpretation into ‘part’s.

The missing LouLou is a further flight of fancy from the perch of empirical bird-fact: dead fifteen years before the speaker enters the scene, her lovingly-recreated ‘posture’ can only be an imaginative construct. It might be due to this necessary invention that Irving’s sound devices are most concentrated in the description of the couple side-by-side: three lines full of doubled letters – ts, ls, zs, the alliterative cs and ps – conjure up this inseparable pair, and the l-sound flutters all the way through ‘small-skulled nuzzle’, ‘skittles’, ‘apples’, ‘like’ and ‘close’, preparing us for our introduction to ‘LouLou’ herself.

Irving’s paean to this avian affection sets things up for the poem’s volta; giving these lovers their due requires honesty, so in three plain and paralleled phrases (‘her name was never LouLou […] yours was different too […] and we’re not her’) the speaker sweeps away all traces of rose-tinted sentiment to admit the mere fact of absence, and our own inability to understand how it might be processed by beings whose experience of the world remains utterly beyond our grasp. Shut out from their presumed internal forms of communication, what each empathising visitor ‘offers’ must be as tentative as that word itself held out over a line-break; Tickle’s continued willingness to engage (‘yet still you come to us’) under these circumstances elicits a quiet, puzzled wonder.

‘Leaving time’, at which the poem ends, is another wholly human construction; it’s a fair bet that Tickle will be staying put, and the prospect of a new abandonment produces such agitation that for the first time in the sonnet, the macaw finds his own voice, an eruption of sound which is here indissociable from violence. We can’t know, of course, if it’s ‘her name’ he’s squawking, or if macaws have a concept of ‘hope’ – but compared to the impossibility of LouLou’s hearing, these practicalities seem like mere quibbles.

Using animal comparisons to help us understand our own behaviour has a long tradition: the medieval art historian Michael Camille, in Image on the Edge, seems convinced that cartoon monkeys appear so frequently in manuscript illuminations because ‘the ape came to signify the dubious status of representation itself, le singe being an anagram for le signe – the sign.’ But we don’t need to go that far to realise that Irving’s reading of Tickle the macaw’s response to loss has a lot to show us about our own.

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#18: ‘Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.’

In the poetry world over the last few days, a single topic has dominated the discussion. With the death of Seamus Heaney, even the mainstream media has been paying attention to the role of poetry. As is the case for many of us, Heaney’s appearance in the AQA anthology played a crucial part in my introduction to contemporary poetry, and while as an adult I’ve only rarely returned to his work, it would seem strange this week to talk about anyone else. The last line of ‘Storm on the Island’ has stayed with me since I last read it, maybe seven years ago; a stoic presentation of human fragility and the strength of spirit which holds us together.

Storm on the Island
by Seamus Heaney

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
The wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so as you can see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you can listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo.
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

*

Community and continuity are the materials from which Heaney constructs his sense of a human defence against the fury of the elements. In a poem which could justifiably evoke a terrifying, hopeless exposure, it’s this surprising solidity which allows us to believe that the speaker will ride out the storm. In fact, for the first six lines, there is no storm at all; instead, Heaney concentrates on building up an island capable of withstanding its assault.

‘We are prepared’ – this is no isolated scrabble, but a plural voice in the present tense, and the caesura which follows provides a space in which to absorb that certainty. The first two lines, packed tight with unassuming monosyllables (‘build’, ‘squat’, ‘sink’, ‘walls’), convey a calm and a rootedness which will carry us through to the weather’s first appearance. Alliteration and half-rhyme (‘roof’/’rock’, ‘squat’/’slate’) function like joists that hold these sturdy lines together, and the simple, physical, present-tense verbs establish a group of people who know exactly what they’re doing – the implication being, what they’ve always done.

Negation helps – ‘never’, ‘no stacks’ – by briskly dismissing what the island-dwellers do not have, the speaker stresses the endurance of what they do. While any other rural community might welcome hay, its absence here is framed as positive – a ‘trouble’ they are lucky to avoid. At this point, we might want to ask who the voice is addressing – ‘as you can see’ and ‘you know what I mean’ suggest a presence on the ground, to whom the facts are being diligently explained. From the fact he is explicitly denied it twice, we might assume the listener is seeking ‘company’.

If so, the people on the island and their rough-hewn houses are the only welcoming ‘shelter’ to be found; in these extreme circumstances, human companionship seems to be the only element which will not turn against you like the formerly ‘tame cat’ or the untrustworthy, oxymoronic comfort of the waves. Indeed, the impact of the storm can be mitigated by imagining its sounds as human too – a ‘tragic chorus’ which, in its shared lamenting, permits each resident to forget the personal danger posed by ‘the thing you fear’, in a skewed version of art’s transcendence. ‘Be not afeared’, Caliban tells the Milanese visitors in Shakespeare’s Tempest, and his island’s ‘twangling instruments‘ lie behind Heaney’s reassuring noises. 

Assonance intensifies as the poem reaches its conclusion (‘it’, ‘hits’, ‘spit’, ‘sit’, ‘wind’, ‘invisibly’), the barrage of sounds emphasising the natural ‘salvo’. Picking up from the earlier explosions of the sea, ‘strafes’, ‘salvo’ and ‘bombarded’ lend the weather a military brutality, but the weapons used are wind and space and emptiness. In resistance to this unholy alliance of force and absence, the plural voice returns after twelve lines of fragmented ‘you’ and ‘I’ – ‘we just sit tight’, ‘we are bombarded’. Even the object of fear is shared, and in that sharing, despite its scale, reduced to the ‘nothing’ the speaker knows it to be. ‘Nothing’ here balances between the howling void and the shrug of insignificance. As King Lear puts it (himself no stranger to suffering at the hands of the weather) ‘nothing will come of nothing’; but Heaney’s poem, in squaring up to it, mounts the only possible defence.

*

I saw Heaney read last summer, at the South Bank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus event, and perhaps only now can I appreciate what a privilege that was. He didn’t read this poem, though he did perform ‘Digging’, for which I imagine many in the room were grateful.

Custom dictates that the Scallop-Shell alternates the gender of its featured writers from one week to the next. Having made an exception given the circumstances, I’m expecting next to cover two female poets in a row before resuming the usual cycle.

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