Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Shaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald

I got this difficult, dense book out of the Poetry Library several months ago, and have serially renewed it.  The poems’ fractured syntax, their language sometimes drawn from science, periodic archaisms and very unlinear shifts of thought made them hard to inhabit at first.  The more I read them, the more I wanted to, for their independence, their intelligence and the feeling of getting lost in a hail-driven landscape (or, sometimes, stuck in a thicket). They seem to me both conceptually exciting, and down-to-earth.  That is not to say I understand them any better now, in the sense of being able to explain them, but I don’t think that is what difficult poetry is for.  I do feel I can inhabit them.  Quoting is problematic – adding to the difficulty by removing the context.  Here is the beginning of ‘Poem’:

To state the discovery of a country
& be in a time without rage, keeping wings
near yourself, as barred as buried in the day, crossly.
Some present results; a tree, a quail, a rock, a hawk
rousing one’s mind from safety and tameable illness
to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch
as patience directs

the finishing line is a trail of feathers to brush.

Macdonald is a falconer.  A lot of the poems have birds, and/or some kind of perspective of flying.  ‘Poem’ has a quote from the artist Paul Nash as an epigraph: “Death, about which we are all thinking, death, I believe is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly”.  The poem’s first line surely contains Hamlet’s “undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’. 

That epigraph (there aren’t many) is helpful.  Someone who’d heard Macdonald read said that her comments about the poems made them more approachable, but on the page, approachability isn’t her aim; the poems reflect the complexity of thought and lived experience.  The whole of ‘Poem’ can be read here, with several others.

This is the end of the final poem, ‘letter to america’.

looking for a small world in the uninhabitable air
trying to extinguish some deeper desire for fire

with something as cold and as hard and as temporary as flight
& what you were hoping is that the air would recolonise you
recognise you and welcome you into the sunlight
and all would be forgiven. ink in the thick air would curl

into glyphs of desire & the lightly starred heel
would dip into the sea at dawn as it spills
into a blaze of mute objects
in the pure suburban heavens

I find that description of flight wonderful, both hard-headed and lyrical.  Macdonald does that sometimes – allows her dense diction to unravel into a lyrical flow, or flight.  As often, the effect on the part of the brain that processes poems visually is semi-abstract.

Her perspective must be affected by falconry… working with an alien consciousness that inhabits an element and perspectives we’re mostly barred from.  Thinking about that, and reading these poems, reminds me of flying kites.  It always felt as though they were alive, especially the one my mother made out of surplus dress material, a small blue-and-green flowery print stretched over a bamboo cross.  That kite’s longing was for the earth, at speed.  The trick, hardly ever accomplished, was to get it high enough for its loop-the-loops not to end in the disaster that birds of prey miraculously avoid.  My favourite was a box kite with red side-wings that would stay up for ages, and on holiday I would lie in the heather, feeling it through the string looped round one hand, half-believing I was up there too. 

The book’s cover has a photo of Jodrell Bank (shirtsleeved man at control panel underneath mess of girders and rim of vast telescope) and the same poem begins:

amid the rain of ether from the noisy sky
& the mild diffidence of dials, the drench of laws
and scripts greeting the storm…

I’m not sure about the ethics of quoting a poem back-to-front, but at least for this one there are nearly two pages in between. 

The title Shaler’s Fish puzzled me until I noticed, belatedly, that the whole book has an epigraph, about a pupil being given a fish by his teacher and told to study it, but not discuss it or read about fish.  This works as a manifesto for Macdonald’s fiercely independent tone and rigorous observation of experience and mood.   This is from ‘Walking’:

        I am valorous in the face of such kindness, as ravens on pylons
        stock doves and the roll of limestone bulks out our version
        ripping out a throat in even dreams, eyes shut & breathing
        concentrating on the sodden lake of the heart, and its sharp depths
        up for retching on sweetness: sugar, tunes, airs, the memory of love

Of course there are influences.  I knew about Macdonald because she has some poems in the Shearsman anthology of radical landscape poetry, which I wrote about here last year.  The introduction to that book suggests that she might be seen as an inheritor to Peter Riley.  She also sometimes reminds me of Denise Riley (the names are a coincidence, and I thought of DR before going back to the anthology and being reminded of PR).  Reading ‘Tuist’, I thought of DR’s ‘Dark looks’ and ‘Affections must not’.  It’s partly the tone of the wit, which more often stays below the surface in this book.  The setting appears to be a country house hotel:

           …pulling the whole rueful shore
to a ha ha, a net around practical ankles
    ah, how the hay smokes
into papaverous skies
as we address the heights of the C20th
in a poplin shirt, all declamatory and tired
with a suit that seals to rest these soft
and perfect metals. 

The short lines in that poem are a rarity.  Macdonald favours longer lines and often quite dense forms, though also couplets, which allow the language and thought some space.

Shaler’s Fish was published by Etruscan Books in 2001.  Available from them by post, or online from Waterstones.  Macdonald hasn’t published any poetry books since then, though she has written other things.  This lack of the expected productivity must be one reason she isn’t better known, at least in mainstream poetry.  The nature of the work must be another.  The trend towards eclectic non-linearity among younger British poets just might change that – it would be good to see this trend embracing such marginalised, modernist, rewarding poetry.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Alice Oswald: language, pinholes and light

The square room at Poetry East with the golden encircled Buddha was full up last weekend for Alice Oswald.  She was there to be interviewed by Maitreyabandhu, and then to read.  Though ‘read’ isn’t the right word, for someone whose only act of reading was to glance at a piece of paper, in between speaking her poems by heart.  Her ability to do this has become legendary after her reciting of the whole of Memorial in London last year – I wish I’d gone.  This time she recited [I keep typing ‘read’, in my page-bound mode] the beginning and the end.  Most interesting was how she said the repeated similes.  The first time was livelier, the second like an echo.

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he’s running through the fields towards her

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he’s running through the fields towards her

A couple of people thought she didn’t repeat any of the similes.  (Those at the end don’t get repeated anyway, but the rest do.)  Maybe they were listening primarily to her tone of voice, and heard difference rather than similarity, which is what Oswald said she intended. Someone else noticed that each time Oswald repeated a simile, her change of tone was the same.  I think this was deliberate.  Not to everyone’s taste.  The way she did it, the beauty of the words was what came out. Memorial is an elegy, and was spoken like one.    

In the interview, Oswald said that she loved Homer at school, the actuality of it, the pluralism (gods etc), the stillness that ancient Greek can have and the fact that Homeric works date from archaic times – later in classical antiquity, rules got developed for literature.  She wanted to liberate the Iliad from a rigid approach, the male tone of nobility.  Originally she intended to centre her version on Helen, but got taken by the oppositions inherent in the text: the battle scenes, the similes from the rest of life. She used repetition to create a counterflow, and as a gesture to the repetition in Homer, the stock phrases. 

She pointed out that Memorial and Dart have things in common.  They both contain a plurality of voices, Homer emerging from oral tradition, and Dart with material from many interviews Oswald did with people around the river.  She thinks long poems are easier to write (well).  The infinite choice in contemporary poetry makes it hard to generate the necessity for a short poem, whereas a long poem generates its own.  (That may be true for her, but I’m doubtful about it as a generalisation.)  Her own liking for fragments makes it easy to break off a long poem. 

Once, aged eight, she was awake all night – night becomes different when that happens – and realised that poetry could describe something a daylight language could not.  That was her starting point.  She quoted Samuel Beckett telling an actor, Speak as though you have moonlight in your voice. 

She described language as the pinhole through which light comes.  The pinhole should let something in more than the writer, should admit the energy of things.  The poem should have something in it more than itself.  Talking about this afterwards, someone directed me to a ‘Sea Sonnet’ from her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. This poem, like her statement, feels manifesto-like.  Here are the first four lines of the sestet:

So I have made a little moon-like hole
with a thumbnail and through a blade of grass
I watch the weather make the sea my soul,
which is a space performed on by a space..

And this is the beginning of her sonnet ‘Prayer’, from the same book.  You can read the whole of ‘Prayer’ here.

Here I work in the hollow of God’s hand
with Time bent round into my reach. I touch
the circle of the earth, I throw and catch
the sun and moon by turns into my mind.

And here is an extract from that book’s title poem, whose speaker is “peak-striding”:

I dropped hankies, cut from a cloth of hills,
and beat gold under fields
for the sun to pick out a patch.

The evening started with readings of two poems important to Oswald.  One was a one-liner by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  Alice Oswald, a gardener by profession, knew him and his garden: while writing, she said (or had he said it?) one should test each phrase to see if it would withstand inscription on a stone. 

Photo from
The other was Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet ‘Patience, Hard Thing!’  Reading it now, after leafing through Memorial to copy out a simile, it sounds quite Oswald-Homeric, despite the very different focus.  I couldn’t possibly justify that comment; it may only be the juxtaposition.  Is the imagery perhaps rather archetypal, while also being very original? And then there’s war and wounds and tosses, however metaphorical.  I don’t know the Hopkins poem well; I’m going to write it out, for the pleasure of it.  From a book, not copied-and-pasted off the internet. Oswald said she loves Hopkins’ rhythm, the syncopation he creates.

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
   Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

   We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
   And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness? – He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

That’s one of the good things about writing a blog.  When I started this piece, I didn’t expect to be thinking about GMH.  His influence on AO can be seen in ‘Prayer’ above, for example, or the rich language in Dart.