Like One More Wave
In the reticent darkness of winter, everything shrinks: time, sense perception, the capacity of towns. We find our way by whatever shines. At 6pm the day seems over, and it is by its own standards, but we have maps that persist despite the apperceived landscape, so we must live awake, or pretend, these further six hours.
Maybe in silence and darkness we try to escape our maps, but the unconscious mind has its own unreadable ones, laid down, we are told, from before we learned how to remember, because the world was so unfamiliar to us then that we could assign neither map nor name.
Impressionistic poetry tries to illuminate the unconscious while remaining connected to its darkness, rather like traversing a cave-dark landscape holding a torch with a thin beam. It’s not an easy task. Words must contain both the light of common coding and the darkness before language. What is attempted is the liminal experience; things are understood, but there are no things. Yeats said of his rhythm that it 'prolongs the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake'. (1)
Most poetry has a component of impressionism, which we map in rhythms and tropes; wielding these devices, we attempt to guide reader and listener into the chaos of their absence. It's not easy. In the process of composition, one may experience one’s poem as a power-pod, but return to where it waits in the hangar and one might find its thrust not quite adequate for inner space. Often, whole poems are composed in a lucid dream, but pen can’t convey the same effect once the eyes are opened and focusing.
The one abiding instruction to aspiring poets, given by all contemporary poet-teachers that I know of, is to be concrete. It's probably reiterated because it's so often contravened. Many people come to poetry as a way of avoiding the harshness of definition and allowing themselves to blossom unsprayed by synthetic fertiliser, unbleached by the sun. This is barely possible through the medium of language, through any medium, but I defy anyone to say that they don't wish for at least a hint of it in their lives, and for a strong sense of it in art. The most memorable poets can achieve this flight by a type of chiaroscuro, where revelation is only possible because it's stolen from the dark, which is forever tugging at it. Adrienne Rich wishes for the 'silence that strips bare...'
The paradox is that the named generates far more complex and powerful associations than the unnamed.– Louise Glück (2)
In this poem, 'Cartographies of Silence', which has eight sections over five pages, the poet uses only seven full stops, and all of these are in the first section of fourteen lines. The first section is a statement of the problem and the full-stops indicate the closed, impenetrable nature of conversation. They occur after the words: 'lie' (twice); 'torn up' (twice); 'false energy'; 'Infiltrates our blood' (a complete sentence); 'Repeats itself' (a complete sentence); and 'denies' (the last word in the section). Thereafter, the only stops are question marks. The language is concrete, but the punctuation points us to uncharted territory.
If there were a poetry where this could happen
not as blank spaces or as words
stretched like a skin over meanings
but as silence falls at the end
of a night through which two people
have talked till dawn. (3)
I'm thinking about concretism and impressionism because I'm wondering why I tend towards impressionism myself, and whether I should. Why, for example, did I express a new beginning in terms of the Celtic fire festival of Imbolg instead of stating the case:
There are many reasons why a poem arrives at its final state, and the author isn't always aware of all of them, in fact can't be aware of all of them. What I do know is that a man in Kerry told me about a ram who broke into a holiday home and, finding it fitted with mirrors on all its walls and doors, was driven mad by its own reflection and smashed them to pieces. (Rams, I found out, use visual signals when looking for a mate.) I had written a poem for each of the other three fire festivals some years before, but simply couldn't compose 'Imbolg'. Now I had it. But the poem was written at a time of major change for me, so it took on that meaning too. If I believed in destiny, I'd say the poem was waiting for its own moment.
My mother’s wintered womb, goodbye.
It hasn’t been an easy passage, sea unquiet
in a pitch of murky shots and shockings.
Take and eat me, glut of light, display me
in your bare-arsed honesty. Here I come,
breaching the small gap like a spear,
hand and leg before me.
I am her pain. (4)
But should I have encoded information that I could have made explicit? For example, my mother was over forty when I was born and her womb was removed straight after. I was 'the scrapings of the barrel' in insensitive rural terms. I took my birth vessel with me. I stole her most female organ. There might be another poem in that, or it could underlay several poems. One reason I didn't expand on it, I think, was that the memory arose after the central avatar, the ram, had declared its place. Another was the rhythm. I wanted the poem to have the feel of swelling tide, so I wasn't going to enter into explanations and discourse. Then there's my tendency to dramatise. Call it impressionistic or allegorical or whatever, but I actually see, hear and feel happenings the way I write them. Here's a poem in progress:
But this is what poetry does, what it is. What is clear? What is concrete? When you're drunk a brick can be putty. Poetry is code because language is code and vacillates between extremes on the scale of difficulty. One struggles to find a position that's tending more towards revelation than obfuscation, but without sticking to the tour guide's daylight map.
The attender to detail reaches out to feel
(those intrusive fingers)
the neck beneath the veil of curls,
roundabout the tree and down the bark
on the unseen side.
'The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage'
But not on a shell, she starts,
Archaic, for the sea.
But on the first-found weed
She scuds the glitters,
Noiselessly, like one more wave.
– Wallace Stevens (5)
(1) W. B. Yeats: Collected Works Vol. 4, 117. (Quoted in Edna Longley, Yeats and Modern Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 2013, 96.)
(2) Louise Glück: Quoted in Edna Longley, opus ibid., 205.
(3) Adrienne Rich: 'Cartographies of Silence', The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977, New York, London: 1993, 16ff.
(4) Máighréad Medbh: from 'Imbolg', new, unpublished collection.
(5) Wallace Stevens: 'The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage', Harmonium, London: Faber and Faber, 2001 (first published 1923), 6.