#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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#9: ‘Let my last words yield/more answers than questions’

Today I’m looking at a poem by Phil Brown which announces its own affiliation to a long tradition of pre-emptively posthumous writing. In ‘Sir Gawain on the Northern Line’, Brown avails himself of an almost ritualistic code stretching back to the poetic ‘Testaments’ of Francois Villon and Isabella Whitney (only one of which I have read), monologues in which the speaker rehearses and prepares for his own demise. Like the medieval alliterative poem which provides its title and epigraph, Brown’s work sends its subject to meet his maker with a blend of linguistic vigour and quiet dignity – and skilfully tranposes its anonymous author’s themes of inside and out, individuality and community, to a modern urban context.

Sir Gawain on the Northern Line

Phil Brown

“In god fayth”, quoth the goode knight, “Gawan I hatte,
That bede the this buffet, quat-so bifalles after,
And at this tyme twelmonyth take at the another
Wyth what weppen so thou wilt, and with no wyy elles
on lyve.”

and if fate should fling me onto
the electric rail of a tube’s tracks
to be sliced open with steel wheels
let me stay so mangled as to remain
unidentifiable and let the driver lose
no sleep.

Or if my end should be the slow sort
made more moral
with each cigarette I suck to the tip
allow me the time to close my accounts
and make good on old
promises.

Let death deal me the bravery to apologise
for piquant truths and pretty lies
and let my last words yield
more answers than questions
and the humility to acquiesce to
all suggestions.

Let my obituary eat up no more column
inches than those not born into old money
and should I be murdered at alighting
in Burnt Oak amid the fourth concentric
Zone let the artist of my death
escape.

The terms, though not of my choice, were agreed :
and as I course viral underneath this metropolis
I leave my regrets at Embankment, Euston, Camden Town
like a skin shed, baring my raw jelly.
No more words sir, my naked neck is
rightly yours.
The night deliquesces us all
under the looming street lamp necks
to be human altricial
in the city’s warp and weft.

*

We begin in medias res: with a lower-case conjunctive word which throws us instantly into the path of a savage hypothetical. A single sentence (as are all of the first four stanzas) communicates propulsive force, but also self-containment. No one likes to think about their own death, but having done so Brown’s moves immediately onward to the logistics of its aftermath, parcelling up each of these four post-mortem thoughts like the articles of a will. The grammar is somewhere between imperative and apostrophe: ‘let me’ and ‘allow me’, like the terms of many prayers, are both a plea and a command. My favourite 20th century take on this type of writing, Jake Thackray’s ‘Last Will And Testament’, revels in this oddly magnanimous, distributive register: ‘Let best beef be eaten/Fill every empty glass/Let no breast be beaten/Let no tooth be gnashed.’

There’s a nod to Brown’s own name-checked forebear in the structure of almost every line, with at least two alliterating beats – ‘fate/fling’, ‘tube’s tracks’, ‘sliced/steel’ – which is at its height in the opening stanza, calling to mind the original’s detailed tableaux of hunting and butchery. And just as Gawain’s puritanical selflessness is a kind of self-absorption, here the speaker reveals his own at the apparent moment of obliterating his self. Wishing to become ‘unidentifiable’ seems like a gracious surrender to the city, the collective violence of its onward movement – but the identification of an accident victim is part of their loved ones’ grieving process, and the sublation of the individual denies any community which surrounds him the possibility of closure. But this is to humanise the poem too much – with the nameless ‘driver’, anonymous as ‘fate’, we are at least partially in the realm of archetypes; mythology on wheels.

Certainly, ‘the slow sort’ of death invoked in the second stanza shrouds the speaker in a category, a familiar story with a ‘moral’ aspect that transcends, if only through repetition, the gruesomeness of those slicing wheels. Here again, smoking seems to stand for a kind of abstracted narcissism – ‘each cigarette’ brings the speaker closer, in narrative logic, to becoming a stock figure in a modern fable. Three isolated m-words hammer home its instructive quality, the line as short as the burnt-out butt-end it prefixes. Closing accounts, making good – in the vocabulary of finance we might find an undue importance ascribed to temporal things, but in the bob-and-wheel section, where we might anticipate ‘debts’, Brown mentions ‘promises’.

The humility of that choice leads us into the third stanza, which continues (in the best possible sense) to generalise. Big, abstract nouns – ‘bravery’, ‘truths’, ‘lies’, ‘answers’, ‘questions’ – apply equally to all lives, and expand the particular circumstances of the speaker’s projected death to a wider metaphysical statement. ‘Deal’ and ‘yield’ both call to mind the highly-codified cut-and-thrust of chivalric combat, but the final two stanzas ground the very Gawainian process of acquiring humility in the fabric of 21st-century London. No wodwos here – just a Tube network which is dignified, like the killers operating within it, by comparison to a Dantean space.

And as Brown’s speaker disperses himself throughout the city, punctuation comes to his aid for the first time in the text; naming the Underground’s constituent parts allows him to break up among them, to be at once the most exposed – a ‘raw’, ‘naked’ first-person pronoun shedding skin – he has ever been, and the most mingled with the world around him. After an autodestructive final submission, where Brown’s ‘no more words’ segue into those of his predecessor, the poem returns to a fluid plurality; not ‘I’, but ‘us’, and the alliteration which had largely disappeared ties the coda together. But where ‘human and helpless’ might have further enhanced that feeling, Brown uses the synonym ‘altricial’ – a word as alien as many of the Gawain-poet’s own choices, and perhaps a brief glimpse of the poet’s own personality before he lets go of himself completely, absorbed into the urban whole.

*

This is a second selection from The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets. If you enjoyed Brown’s take on the poetic testament, I recommend Thackray’s song in the strongest possible terms, as well as this French masterpiece of the genre by his own great mentor, Georges Brassens.

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#6: ‘Bears generally lead solitary lives.’

Having finally got around to reading the Salt Anthology of Younger Poets cover-to-cover, I’m discovering a number of wonderful writers. One is Miranda Cichy, whose poem ‘Bear’ deftly treads the line between human and animal, and the one between the known and the unknown – or the knowable and unknowable – that lends a frisson of inexhaustible interest to relationships and poems alike.

Bear

by Miranda Cichy

We met in civilisation; someone had dressed you
in a suit. Brown hair rustled taut beneath the shirt
and nudged over the collar, I dropped my eyes
as the bear books said I should. Later I walked
to the centre of the woods to find you,

bare, clothes shed beneath the tallest tree.
Some suggest lying on the ground, and passively
waiting for the bear to lose interest. The earth
was fleshy soft, the leaves like damp confetti
as your claws trailed ragged across my back.

In the morning I passed bees like cherries
through your swollen lips, purring black and yellow
lamentations as their tiny bones cracked.
But bears generally lead solitary lives. I backed
away with my palms up, speaking calmly.

I saw you dance just once, with lumbering steps,
circling the keeper whose hands mauled your fur,
the chains looped round your paw and hers.

*

Bears have a long history of doing duty as analogues for human beings. I think it’s because they stand on their hind-legs; they can hurt us, but they can also dance like us, be hurt like us. The same Elizabethan theatre-goers who first bore witness to Shakespeare’s profound insights into the human character also went in their thousands to see these animals bound to a stake and savaged; and returned days later to the same, or similar buildings, to see Lear and Macbeth be torn apart in near-identical scenographic conditions.

The first two stanzas are two mirrored scenes, in which each protagonist in turn visits the other’s natural habitat. The vagueness of ‘civilisation’ is unable to contain the physical specifics of the animal – he chafes at the restraint of clothing, ‘brown hair… taut’, and this immutable presence induces a bashful modesty in the speaker, the speed of whose reaction is suggested by the quick-fire comma that swings the line along where we might expect a semi-colon or a full-stop to pause the scene.

Throughout the poem there’s a tension between what the bear is supposed to be like in the books, the generic figure held at a safe, italic distance, and the bodily individuality gradually depicted in the second and third stanzas, an opposition supported by Cichy’s pun: ‘bear’ vs ‘bare’, the idea and the exposed example. In his own territory, the ‘earth’ and ‘leaves’ of the forest combine to give the scene the all-embracing physicality that ‘civilisation’ lacks, but the savagery implied by that uncontainable, rustling hair is held at bay; all is ‘damp’, ‘fleshy soft’, and even bees are disarmed, turned into a sweet, soft fruit. While there’s no particular rhyme-scheme to the poem, ‘ack’ and ‘ee’ sounds drift lightly through these two stanzas, a ragged trail that holds them loosely together.

The forest encounter intermingles the dark and weird and the recognisably human – ‘confetti’ suggests a marriage, ‘in the morning’ some kind of lovers’ aubade, but as far as I remember it in Romeo and Juliet, nobody eats any bees. And the bear has a familiar blend of ferocity and sympathetic vulnerability: the light, sexualised pressure of his trailing ‘claws’ hints at their potential for violence against the ‘fleshy soft’ earth, and we hear ‘bones cracked’, but only ‘tiny’ ones. But elsewhere it is the bear we see suffering, with ‘swollen’ lips, ‘mauled’ and ‘lumbering’, a captive figure deprived of elegance.

The narrator, following the bear books’ guidance, anticipates a figure who desires solitude, but the poem belies this prescriptive certainty; there is a third figure all along, the ‘someone’ who dresses the bear in the poem’s first line who may or may not be the ‘keeper’ at the end. While Cichy’s speaker and the reader might want to imagine coercion, the ending is closer to a masochistic contract – the chains are ‘looped’, not ‘locked’, and ‘your paw and hers’ gives the third party an ursine quality, a shared bear-status from which the speaker is excluded and can only observe with an all-too-human bafflement.

*

I can think of at least two modern songs making mileage of the closeness between bears and humans – this Randy Newman classic, a parable of acceptance, and the much darker approach suggested by the Hold Steady’s raucous take on a lyric from the Game of Thrones series.  If you know any other songs or poems that play with this comparison, I’d love to hear about them.

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#4: ‘The moment/is neither metrical nor imperial’.

Before reading this week’s poem by Emily Hasler, it’s worth taking a look at a potted biography of its subject, Eadweard Muybridge. A Wikipedia entry pins down a life as blocky, jerky segments, the way animals are captured in Muybridge’s photographs. Hasler’s skill is to gesture at the emptiness between the images; an unsettling absence that hovers on the borders of art’s ability to contain and relive experience.

The Animal in Motion

on Eadweard Muybridge 

Those poor hostages, trapped in their sequential cells;
forced to walk or run, to climb, to sit then stand,
stand then sit. How miserable the captive animal is,
worried away – till they lose hair, presence, weight –
with the fret of knowing they are being watched.
Their every moving part dissected. It seems a wonder
anyone does anything. Reduced to one action the body
strains to bend and lift, to step from the frame.

Beyond the frame: the black that is non-happening.
Deep as a canyon, what it is between. A space
with the capacity of sleep, the near darkness of a blink.
Barely noticed and then dismissed.  The moment
is neither metrical nor imperial, neither ends nor begins.
Each step’s a crime: the before and after and frontier within.

*

If Hasler’s poem is ‘on Muybridge’, not on Muybridge’s art, then it’s partly an exploration of the artist as framer; and though it doesn’t dwell on the shadier details of its subject’s life, there’s a sense in which he, too, is being set up for the mug-shot. We don’t see the photographer, but we see his ‘hostages’, ‘trapped’, ‘forced’ and ‘captive’; the vocabulary of a sadistic zookeeper. The zoopraxiscope Muybridge invented created for the first time the illusion of a moving image, but Hasler’s grammar focuses on the awkward separateness of each action – ‘to sit then stand,/stand then sit’. The line-break contributes to this slicing up of lived experience.

Being preserved for posterity is a drawn-out ritual to be endured, a form not of resurrection but dissection. We think of the advent of motion photography as bringing the past back to life, perhaps not questioning too much where its early subjects wanted to stay dead. The poem won’t let what ‘seems a wonder’ be a wonder, carrying on between the sixth and seventh line to raise what’s either the incomprehensibility of motion, when broken down to its component parts, or the question of who would submit their lives to such scrutiny. The image is a prison which constrains the energy of its subject.

Something about all this speaks to what poetry does (and did, before photography). To entertain an old-fashioned idea, each poem is the repository of an experience which, on each reading, can be lived again; the words on the page replay the transient human moment, even at centuries’ distance. By foregrounding the stilted, voyeuristic aspects of the gaze of Muybridge’s camera, I wonder if Hasler is asking how healthy or edifying it really is for a moment in which one participates to be prolonged beyond its time. If taking a photograph causes ‘fret’, worry, misery, there’s something uneasy about the way the poem replicates that process of repeated capture.

The structure of this sonnet also points cleverly towards the physical presence of Muybridge’s strips of film. After eight lines there is a blank space – white, not black – following which, the focus changes. But here Hasler explores what Muybridge doesn’t, or couldn’t. The concrete animal details of the first stanza – ‘hair, presence, weight’ – have been lost, like those real physical elements whose image lives on , to be replaced by the abstraction of ‘non-happening’ and words which, like the black space, are conjunctions – ‘beyond’, ‘between’, ‘before and after’.

The word order of line 10 is like a picture jolting; ideas blink in and out, flicking past the corners of our understanding. The last three lines present ‘the moment’ as something indefinable, subject to no categorization or reduction, ever-present and yet somehow never really there. Then back to the physical – a ‘step’, a ‘crime’ – which brings us to consider Muybridge’s, takes us over the frontier into the world beyond as the poem slips out of shot. Hasler ends with a rhyme, but it doesn’t quite line up. We started in an external world where every action can be pinned and labeled; we end ‘within’, far from that precision, no longer sure where anything belongs.

*

I found Hasler’s poem in the most recent issue of Transom, a great webzine whose interviews with its contributors, many of whom were disappointed at the lack of close-reading for contemporary writing, gave me this idea to start this website. More of, and on, her work is available here.

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#3: ‘What is now an undeciphered language.’

The title poem of John Clegg’s 2012 debut collection, Antler is an exercise in shifting perspective. It’s an elegy not simply for lost life, but a lost way of life, which evokes mortality without sentimentality and somehow comes nearest to resurrection when it takes its closest look at death. I met John on the 2008 Tower Poetry course, and have been in awe of his shamanic wisdom ever since.

Antler

by John Clegg

This was the empire of antler,
walrus ivory, soapstone and marten furs;

this was a choked democracy
around a marketplace where local kings

of seven lakes or less demanded
garrisons; this was a trading post

where silverscrap and Arab coins
by weight changed hands for whalebone.

This is a town below the mud
where ninety graves so far have been

disturbed: soldiers on stools,
two children end to end, a seamstress

wrapped in leather, seal-
hunters, shamen, priests, and one

clutching a shinbone notched
in what is now an undeciphered language.

*

There are no people in the first two lines of ‘Antler’. Or rather, there are signs of human presence detached from their makers – ‘marten furs’ only attain that name when they stop being the skin and hair of their original owners, and ‘walrus ivory’ isn’t what you call it when it’s attached to a living walrus. We see craftsmanship without the craftsmen, and an empire without its emperor; unless the antler itself is the source and seat of power. It’s certainly more durable than the people who carved it, hence the past tense; they have been replaced by the signs we recognise them by. Elsewhere in the collection, a speaker reflects: ‘Our mystics say the moss is growing us.’

But like William Golding in The Inheritors, Clegg puts flesh on nameless, ancient bones. (Being unable to date or locate the civilisation here perhaps indicates my own ignorance – at a guess, pre-modern, possibly Inuit – but there’s still a strong parallel with Golding’s imaginative paleoanthropology, even if the world of Antler is much closer to our own.) Clegg downgrades the size of the settlement; an empire is revised into a ‘marketplace’ in which the voice of the people can be heard, then to a ‘trading post’, suggesting both isolation and a link to the wider world. As he does so, the mysterious inhabitants seem more and more human, with their hands and their demands.

The same logic is at work in ‘local kings/of seven lakes or less’; another trade, of temporal power for personal poignancy. And as goods are bartered, the phonology also becomes richer, with those lapping ‘l’s, the alliteration in ‘silverscrap’, ‘weight’ and ‘whalebone’. We feel for the first time like we might be able to hear their language.

At which point, this half-imagined, half-reconstructed world is wrenched away from us, precisely as it is located within our own. Like in many of Clegg’s poems, the midpoint pivots the reader from past to present as the new tense – ‘This is’ – sheds its stark, forensic light. A town may be bigger than a trading post, but it isn’t an empire, and that ‘mud’, even as it’s dug away, re-covers the impression we were starting to form.

There’s an implication that the poet’s creative archaeology is preferable, both aesthetically and ethically, to the real thing – the jolting enjambment between the fifth and sixth stanzas makes the graves’ disturbance doubly troubling. As Hilary Mantel asked with relation to Richard III in her excellent ‘Royal Bodies’ lecture, ‘Why are we all so pleased about digging up a king?’ And from here on the line-breaks are jerkier, one even slicing through the middle of a compound word – the business of excavation displaces the text, unsettling Clegg’s assertive visions. We find no kings, just a jumble of ages and professions whose ascribed roles offer little individuation.

Until that ‘one’, in the third last line, whose ‘clutching’ gesture even in death grants him a human singularity. These are the hands in which goods were changing, folded inwards; those notches are the mark of art, finally seen next to what might be the remains of the artist. By identifying those time-worn symbols as ‘what is now an undeciphered language’, Clegg conjures the picture of a time when that language was spoken and understood. An image of transience also speaks of the life through which it passed.

*

You can find more of John Clegg’s work here and here, or buy the book from Salt. Golding’s The Inheritors is a fascinating artistic exploration of how we might see our forebears, and inspired this song by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who once in fact shared a bed with John Clegg while touring the North-East, for reasons of a wholly practical nature.

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