Friday, 1 March 2013
Jo Shapcott's 'Gherkin Music': "Joining the Game of Brilliance"
Gherkin photos © Minouche Wojciechowski
London is a city of contrasts. This is the ultimate cliché; I don't think I've ever come across a city which someone wants to sell to tourists and which isn't called "a city of contrasts" at some point. I have found, though, that London's contrasts can be particularly beautiful or savage.
I was on my way home tonight and had just got on the bus at Sloane Square when a friend texted to ask if I wanted to meet up for dinner. Poised to text back "no, I'm on my way home," I realised that I had nothing much to do at home and didn't particularly want a night in, so instead I hopped off the bus and headed on foot towards Kensington to meet her. I walked up Sloane Street, where the shop windows are like art galleries to me - some of the lovely displays suggested that horses and bags are in this year (I could definitely live with that.) And on through Knightsbridge and up towards the Royal Albert Hall. Near the Victoria and Albert, I ended up buying a hot chocolate for a man who was homeless and ill - he had a cancerous lesion which he'd wrapped plastic bags around. I think part of me closed off in self-defense when I saw that, not really able to confront the fact that I'd just been window shopping in Chelsea amongst people with far more money than they need, and that I was wearing a warm coat and off to have a restaurant dinner before heading home to a flat which is at least tolerably warm - while this man was quite possibly in the process of dying on the street.
This is where London's contrasts are savage, and they are often to do with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, one of the outstanding failures of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. I will never forget the day when I found myself on a particularly threatening housing estate in Brixton in the afternoon, and then in the evening I went to a millionaire's house in Holborn for an art exhibition. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the exhibition, but the contrast gave me a kind of moral headache. "They will certainly build houses and have occupancy...they will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating" (Isaiah 65:21, 22, New World Translation) - this is how the world was actually intended to be.
London's contrasts can also be magnificent and fascinating. I went to St Katharine's Docks one night recently with friends and we were dumbstruck (though conflicted) at the sight of the Tower of London with the Shard rising jagged and space-age behind it. I cannot possibly imagine how the Tudors would have reacted to this. It was one of the most science-fiction things I've ever seen.
I thought of such contrasts when I read one of the new Poems on the Underground - the new set are all London poems, as it is the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. I've loved 'Stations' by Connie Bensley, as well as pieces by Wordsworth and Yeats. This poem, though, really made my day when I saw it on the District line - I imagine I wore a big stupid smile on my face as I read it.
GHERKIN MUSIC (Jo Shapcott)
This poem does a number of things rather wonderfully. The Gherkin is an icon because of its distinctive shape; the first line asks us to "walk the spiral", and then the poem takes a shape and does just that. I'm not a big fan of shape poems, but this one is not obtrusive - it feels very organic and intuitive, a part of the words. The line breaks resemble a staircase (probably a spiral staircase) but they also evoke the shapes of the glass panes which make up the Gherkin, "where flat planes are curves" and "fragments of poems." Although your eye must read down the page to experience the poem, the words and the shape somehow make you feel as though you are ascending - this is wonderfully done and not something I've not often experienced in poetry. The poem itself becomes a "game/of brilliance".
I was also struck by the fusing of the secular and the spiritual in this poem. The building is described in terms which make it into something like a cathedral - "names fall like glory/into the lightwells" - but it is well known that this building is yet another temple to commerce. Shapcott also calls it "St Mary Axe" - the Gherkin's official name is actually 30 St Mary Axe, the name of the street. But again, this term would naturally bring to mind a place of worship. The City of London is, of course, densely populated both with skyscrapers and immensely rich corporations, and with a depth of history which includes many churches and other old buildings. All of this comes together in just a few lines, in a poem which should be providing a moment of transcendence for many Tube travellers this year.