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.