‘Funeral’ by John Stammers (Interior Night, 2010)

Posted: August 7, 2011 in John Stammers Page

In ‘Funeral’ we begin: ‘I too know it, the charm of funerals in the rain/ the ferocity of the veil in daylight’; here ‘ferocity’ associates ironically with the tone of the quotation-source (‘I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle…’: ‘Poetry’, Marianne Moore), with its measured, cultured tone; it also engages with the Stammers’ poem’s very real experience and stance towards grief. The ‘fiddle’ that is implied, suppressed, and thereby a subconscious force, could be read as the particular language-use in poetry of Moore’s period; and the un-important, only further emphasises our own contemporary and continued denial of the reality of death around (and within) us, and thereby creating what can be described as a ‘furious’ vortex, imaged as the dark veil in daylight; a feedback between competing modes of awareness.

Marianne Moore’s denial of the efficacy of poetry is the jumping-off point for Stammers: “Writing poems is horrifyingly important to me”, he commented in his earlier Wolf Magazine interview. ‘Funeral’ is the market stall poem for this book; and its wares, the psychological realms of Id, Ego and Super Ego. We are perhaps here stepping into that dangerous territory of Alan Jenkins’ Harm, in this book; but armed with a map (Freud), and a known landscape (psychoanalysed). The poem takes on the role of questioning the role of language (: “all this fiddle” i.e. the dubious ability to express anything clearly through language) in our understanding of ourselves, and our relations with the world. In this first poem we also encounter classic Freudian symbols: a wreath, and a cigarillo/swelling nose; and here, in the first-person address, we perhaps encounter Freud on his home ground – is the character yer man Freud personified? These were his smoking preference. But then, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’ But this is a cigarillo, and so we have here a diminution: ‘a little man’, as they might say in the phallic lingua franca; here we are alerted to use of irony, of a strategic gendered deference.

That line, ‘disremembered rituals of the tribe.’ is very much in the character of Freud’s essays (I have not, as yet, found a direct quotable source for this in the Essays); and the use of the term ‘disremembered’, itself, a pointer to the classic Freudian exposé of the functions of lies, deliberate, and apparently incidental. Is there perhaps an Eliot-quality to that line from Eliot’s Mallarmé-phase (how was it, ‘To purify the dialect of the tribe’?) and language-use, particularly the use of language connected with and surrounding the rites of death, is the prime source of ritual in a culture. The overall sardonic tone to the poem also echoes early Eliot.

The last line: ‘Are you with me, yourselves, at the rendezvous?’ is such a splendidly ambiguous line, implying both the real event of each our own future deaths/ funerals, as well as the possibility of a resurrected, or maybe not so much that as a survival of spirit. The deliberate confusion of tenses destabilises; this is, as it were, the last push of a poem that destabilises the sense of self throughout its course. The ability of language to suggest, insinuate, lay traps for the reader, can be unsettling: ‘that abstraction/ known as giving up the ghost.’ is both suggestive of a metaphysical inference, as well as a defiantly physical one: we have here, as in ‘The grey twist of smoke’, both spirit, and cremation smoke. The ‘grey twist of smoke’ also betokens Freud’s own death through cancer, whose cause is accepted to be long exposure to smoking.

That last line of the poem displays, in its ambiguity, how language can inveigle us, persuade us, of different realities, posit alternative endings. As we work through its suggestions of possible survival, the sacred, we come to the profane, the cold douch of the final reality which is each our own inevitable physical death.

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