Archive for June, 2016

I Believe

Posted: June 25, 2016 in Chat
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Robert Oppenheimer in his wide-brimmed hat;
pensive in profile, shirt and tie – is he looking away,
or is it onwards,  towards the choices
that only appear in retrospect?

And Robert Oppenheimer in the physics lab,
all thumbs: ‘What you spilled now, Bob?’
A shadow across his brow in sudden light:
his raised then collapsing pillar of achievements.

Read into this a story, something Greek,
how reasoning and columns collude
with the all-out erotic rush
for conclusions, answers, a workable
solution. It is how a rational man
is ruined, undressed, by what hubris.
The McCarthy trial falling down about him;
a red stain on his vest, underneath
the academic gown.

One churning hour of exhilaration
before it settled in, the realisation
of what he has done. His wife and daughter
caught up in flash-bulb glare
as press-photographers rush forward, roar.

In desert exile, his profile carries the stamp
of the enigma of culpability.
If this was the image on a postage stamp

what letter would it bear?

Everyone who has studied modern American poetry will have come across the poem, Travelling Through the Dark, by William Stafford (for a copy, see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42775).

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The poem has a clear through narrative. It is about finding a dead deer on a dark road (lot’s of d’s there!); it begins:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

Succinct, factual, attitudinal. The poem was published in 1962, and carries all the baggage of that period; the New Criticism ideal of the way content, form and expression should work; the non-sentimentalism from Frost, and the civic duty attitudes of Eisenhower-Kennedy administrations merging with Civil Rights issues.
At the end of the poem, the dead deer which was found to hold its still living fawn, was unceremoniously pushed off the road into the river.

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Unceremoniously? In the frame of the poem on the page it is anything but unceremonious. The poem may denote a matrix of implications, we may interpret in the direction of our own interests, but what is on the page is this and this. And that this is what it says in direct narrative, and implied ethics.

The poem celebrates – it celebrates the attitude of tough decisions being made for the benefit of all – motorists on that road in the dark, that is. It celebrates form and content, and their relationship to a way of life in post-war, early 1960s America. Maybe it could be argued that this adherence to form and structure rather than the focus on ‘soft’, the malleable, mirrored the social and racial tensions of those times.

A modern commentator gave us the option (https://www.coursera.org/learn/modpo) of actually getting our hands dirty and rescuing the fawn. The attitudes have changed, and changed substantially.
We consider now the status of the deer, of borders – have we trespassed onto the deer’s grounds/habitat, or the deer onto ours? At best the roadway can be considered a liminal place, it is part ours in their habitat, and part theirs in ours.

We have approached the moral sphere, to find we were there all the time.
It is a sphere because it can be all-encompassing, but also limiting.

I would like to follow my own trajectory and consider a poem by another author from another period. Is it a response-poem?

HUMBLES, by Frances Leviston, published 2007 (http://www.francesleviston.co.uk/poems/humbles/).

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It begins:

If you have hit a deer on the road at dusk;
climbed, shivering, out of your car
with curses to investigate the damage
done, and found it split apart and steaming
far-flung in the nettle bed, utterly beyond repair,
then you have seen what is not meant to be seen,
is packed in cannily, coiled, like parachute silks,
but unputbackable, out for the world to witness:….

In this poem there is no living fawn; the connect at the end is with an unstrung Judas Iscariot, found on his tree next morning,

still tethered to earth
by all the ropes and anchors of his life.

We have moved from the personal morals of the lone driver and the deer, to the almost totemistic image. We move from particular to universalised.
The language of the book this poem introduces us to (PUBLIC DREAM, Picador Poetry, 2007. ISBN 9780330440547) has a lovely flow, rhythm and rhetorical ease that is almost hypnotic. As a debut book of poetry it is remarkable, and well-deserved all the accolades it gained. The poems range from longer almost meditations, to the short detonations:

FEAR

The crackle that pulled
the darkness tight

was the sound of the rose
on my bureau, unfolding

The rhythm and metre builds up an expectation, which is confounded. Did we expect a ‘night’ rhyme at the end? A return to the two-beat line? The language moves by way repeated sounds interspersed by changing time durations. What we have is a greater emphasis on language, and it is by this means the potentially grisly description is rendered artful.

Here is another spin of the moral sphere: like a soap bubble it gives different hues as the light changes. The light? Let’s call it the intent of the poem. We are no longer in the world of rocks and stones, rivers and immediate action to safeguard other drivers, here we open out into polysyllables, the images and similes of language use.
We are moving into the world of subjective appreciation. This also is a liminal world; it is like being on a Wilson River Road of the word.

The moral immediacy is no longer an imperative, it has been divorced from the disturbing impact (!) of the living fawn in the dead deer, and so, the later commentator’s need for rescue. The dead deer is transfigured from road-kill into learned image: Judas. This religious image is not backed up by calling upon the root-horror of the betrayed-then-crucified savior figure. This use of image gives a slightly off-centre reflection of personal response to the burst deer, separated from the self by the arts of language.

The arts of language here I find greatly inviting. Why is that? I think it is because they allow ease of movement: we are not corralled into stances, opinions, sides, or any form of arrogant presumption that we now have all the answers. There is also the play on the older meaning of the title, Humbles – referring to lites/innards. We are also, indeed, humbled by the sight of the dead deer: this is us from another perspective.
Inherent here also, and continuing from the previous poem, is the old anti-metaphysical position. Despite the religious imagery of this poem.This mismatch exhilerates.

So then we come to Sam Buchan-Watts. His debut is a pamphlet for Faber and Faber: FABER NEW POETS 15 (Published 2016. ISBN 9780571330416).

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I was reading this pamphlet with great enjoyment, and thinking, this writing reminds me of… then there, in his Acknowledgements, is:
‘These Days Go By Just Like That’ is indebted to Frances Leviston’s ‘Humbles’. This is a paired-poem.
He begins his first of the pair like this:

These Days Go By Just Like That’

If you emerge from the glove of woods –
the trail’s patchiness like jaundiced spliff paper
and the dry powder bloom of a fire extinguisher
let off by kids last night —
blinking, feeling skew-whiff, confused, to find this:
a medieval re-enactment
in medias res….

The structure echoes Frances Leviston’s Humbles, but the poem takes us further out of immediate-world descriptiveness, and into the world of language. He carries through the idea of the religious imagery, moved forward to medieval re-enactment, mystery-play reference.
I have to admit I love his language; I love this pamphlet, and hope he carries on writing like this forever.
He won’t.
Writers grow, change, develop; times change, and the demands of those changes on our responses change.

There is here, maybe it’s in his titles like this one, a reminder of John Stammers in his first two books, Panoramic Lounge Bar, and Stolen Love Behaviour, both published by Picador Poets, 2001 and 20115 respectively. It is also in the way, his ‘why’, of use of language.

This world of language, the arts of language, separate us off from immediate reality. This is the rhetorical purpose, and it comes to us from the beginnings of the use of language: it persuades, tricks us even, but also it pleases, and pleasures us.

We see an indication of it here in the reference to spliff papers. We see it in the many contemporary fictions that deal with drinking/hangovers, drug-taking, any description of a different awareness, with different bases of reality.

So where are we with this poem? The two poems form an almost chiasmus, but the second repeats the moves and gestures of the first in the same order. This of course gains its emphasis from the line,

…as if history were a thing to be administered
amidst the afternoon.

In the second poem we encounter the disorientating effects of woodland light, and shifting perspectives; this is suggested and emphasised by reference to drugs: benzedrine, hash. There is a build-up of suggestions of the unreliability of mental states, time-awareness, of sensory input.

What we have here is the New Scepticism, in application.

 

Also see http://www.imprint.co.uk/pdf/NOE.PDF.
In his PDF, Alva Noe states:
The new scepticism questions whether we even have the perceptual experience we think we have. According to the new scepticism, we have radically false beliefs about what our perceptual experience is like. Perceptual consciousness is a kind of false consciousness; a sort of confabulation. The visual world is a grand illusion.

He takes this to be a misreading of actual research.
There is nothing in new in misreading: the Romantics did it with Hegel, and I cannot believe nobody misread New Critical writings. They certainly have with Wittgenstein. The misreading of grand narratives is a way of creating one’s own secret garden, a place for play and creativity surrounded by the mapped out, explained, too well known and brightly lit: a place to breathe, to move freely. It doesn’t mean the world doesn’t exist, that its demands are not legitimate and pressing – what is does mean is that sometimes the person needs space to reconfigure in order to find, if not answers to the problems, at least ways of dealing with them.

Wherever language is used, wherever people are, is the moral sphere. It may not appear spherical, more of a non-euclidian, constantly changing flux, but it is us, ours, what we have made, and what we live by.