21/12/2019 0 Comments
On poetry and the forms grief takes
When I was young and heartbroken my friend Diana drew me a picture of a toothbrush with teeth instead of bristles. I had completely forgotten this but it is recorded in a diary I kept at the time and surprisingly it did seem to have consoled me somewhat. Only Diana could have come up with such an unlikely and yet effective gesture. This is by way of thinking about grief and form. One of the reasons why I find Robert Lax’s port poem so consoling is that it is almost pure form, just a repetitive arrangement of formal elements that offer such minimal meaning. I have been reading and rereading two books of poetry this year that are organised around structures of grief, no, structures for grief, or for the expression of grief, or the organisation of grief, if I am not now just repeating the same words in various arrangements, which is in fact one of the ways grief can be expressed (or organised, or structured). One of these is Anne Kennedy’s Moth Hour, in which she looks back to the death of her brother in 1973, and runs a really very lovely poem he wrote through a series of variations. In the essay at the very end of the book she tells how she listened, in the days and months after his death to Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. These poems that begin as variations on images and lines from Philip’s poem take off, as Anne writes of the Beethoven talking off, into more and more complexity, looping in more and more memories, stories, daily detritus, daily treasure, language play and language seriousness, till they swell to a kind of crescendo of thinking and feeling in the long lines of variations 30 and 31. Philip’s poem imagines the self caught in a jar like an insect, fed on leaves and The Book of Tea, with a pen and paper to write on. It is a poem as much about the child on the outside of the jar, instructed “to collect your imaginary mind.” The imaginary mind is collected in these variations, which becomes, in variation 30, the collective imagination, entrapped and yet watched, and loved, of the generations X, Y and Z, defined in part in opposition to the “They” of variation 31. I love the word “they,” all the ways in which this most wonderfully flexible word can work, and perhaps most especially the paranoiac way in which it seems to designate some controlling group responsible for everything that has gone wrong, in a world controlled and constructed far beyond our own volition, even as we become a part of the controlling, destructive generation. “If I keep going with this poem I will break poetry,” the poet writes. Almost! But poetry is hard to break. Already in variations 32 and 33 the pull towards the aphorism can be felt, but the repetitions and images also keep open the resonance of poetry. The second section, The Thé, is miraculous, in its combination of brevity and reach, aphorism and whatever the opposite of aphorism is, something beyond narrative and poetry, and I have been thinking about brevity and poetry in ways this extraordinary work extends, but that will have to be for another post because I am discovering another rule which is these have to be written in one go, or edited in one go if I’m taking something I wrote from somewhere else, and I was going to write about Vana Manasiadis’s The Grief Almanac, which is another complex and lovely collection of poems structured around grief. The complexity of grief structures is suggested before the book is even opened, with the mesmerising cover art by Marian Maguire offering directions for the eye to take upwards and downwards, backwards and forwards, looking like a labyrinth without quite offering pathways to anywhere. This is a book of indirect correspondances between the left-hand side pages and the right-hand side pages, each side offering its own way through a navigation of memory and response. The collection ends with the yearning for (and promise of) a continued call and response between mother and daughter, and such a yearning, and such a promise, is all through the book in the ways memories sit opposite descriptions of art-works, narratives are presented in letter form, the past is pulled into the present, the present breaks into pieces, days cannot be disentangled one from another. “The present pulls the plug on the present moment by moment,” Anne Kennedy writes in Moth Hour, and in The Grief Almanac Vana Manasiadis writes, “I’m leaving too, the me you knew, the me I knew with you.” Grief sharpens the present moment into such a dazzle, such a dazzle of departure. As Anne Kennedy also writes, “Beauty is the thing that goes surprise!”
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These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.