Friday, 31 July 2015

Keith Douglas: 'This Is the Dream'

 Edgar Degas, Rehearsal on Stage, 1874. Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Keith Douglas quite often used imagery of dance and theatre in his poems, as in this mysterious and deliberately fragmentary piece, 'This Is the Dream'. The nature of performance can, I think, be both a distancing technique, and an approach toward another kind of intimacy.

THIS IS THE DREAM (Keith Douglas)

The shadows of leaves falling like minutes.
Seascapes. Discoveries of sea creatures
and voices, out of the extreme distance, reach us
like conjured sounds.      Faces that are spirits,

cruise across the backward glance of the brain.
In the bowl of the mind is pot pourri.
Such shapes and hues become a lurid
decor to The Adventures. These are a cycle. When 

I play dancer's choreographer's critic's role
I see myself dance happiness and pain
(each illusory as rain)
in silence. Silence.      Break it with the small

tinkle;      apathetic buzz buzz
pirouetting into a crescendo, BANG.      Until
as each scene closes hush the stage is still,
everything is where it was.

The finale if it should come is

the moment my love and I meet
our hands move out across a room of strangers
certain they hold the rose of love.

                                           [? Cairo, October 1943]

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night: Choose Your Own Adventure

No Direction by Mark Dries. Used under Creative Commons license

One of the most intriguing new collections of poetry that I have read in quite some time is American poet Louise Glück's Faithful and Virtuous Night.

I have been a fan of Louise Glück ever since I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Wild Iris, perhaps fifteen years ago. Despite having added to the genre myself recently, I'd say that the garden poem is one of the most overdone tropes in literature (or at least English-language literature), and if you are going to do it, you had better do it well. The Wild Iris, a series of garden poems, reaches great philosophical and sensual heights and it contains lines of poetry that I can never forget ("from the center of my life came a fountain, deep blue shadows on azure sea water"). It also performs the feat of multiple/shifting perspectives with especial effectiveness.

This latter technique - that of multiple and/or shifting perspectives - is key to Faithful and Virtuous Night. I might as well confess that it reminded me of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. My brother and I loved these when we were children - if you were a child of the 70s and/or 80s you may well remember these. The Cave of Time, By Balloon to the Sahara, Survival at Sea and many others... These books had something in common with the text-adventure computer games of the 80s, and they allowed you to step into the world of different characters and situations and to choose the path of your story. We read them over and over again, because some storylines seemed particularly difficult to choose, and we wanted to find and experience them all.

Faithful and Virtuous Night has the curious effect of seeming to tell a story - that of an artist who has been orphaned - or perhaps several stories, but at the same time, the poems don't really seem to be chronological. While I think they should be read together or in each other's light, they could be read in different sequences. It makes me think of the expression "the fall of the cards", which seemingly could refer either to luck (or lack of luck) in a card game, or the cards used in fortune-telling. But is there a main character, and is it Glück or someone else? Is the child in some of the poems a vision (or metaphor) representing aspects of her life, or is it another character, or...? It sometimes seems as though in each poem, the same core persona enters and leaves by a different set of doors, wearing different masks. In 'The Melancholy Assistant', watching snow fall, the speaker says:

The street was white, the various trees were white -
Changes of the surface, but is that not really
all we ever see?

I think this has to be one of the most intriguing and unique poetry collections I have ever read. It is quite beautiful and quite haunting, and you should read it if you want something contemporary but different.

Here are links to a couple of poems from Faithful and Virtuous Night:


AFTERWORD (Louise Glück)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Lost People: Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford'

We are closed (and do not open tomorrow) by Sten Dueland. Used under Creative Commons license.

The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which took place in July 1995 during the Bosnian war, has made me think of the poem 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' by Derek Mahon.


'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' has always seemed to me to be a totally unique work of art, and one of the greatest poems of the last century. Recently it was on the shortlist for the RTE-sponsored A Poem for Ireland competition, and although it lost out to Seamus Heaney's 'When All the Others Were Away at Mass', I think it would have been a worthy winner.

This is the ultimate microcosm poem; millenia of hardworking, suffering and lost human beings are drawn down to a sad little colony of mushrooms in a quiet corner of a small Irish county. The construction of the poem is extremely subtle, I think. It opens with a broader view - "Even now there are places where a thought might grow" and glimpses of a "Peruvian mine" and "Indian compounds". But then the view narrows to such an extent that it's as though you are in the shed with the mushrooms.

A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.

Ominously, the shed is actually part of a "burnt-out hotel". Is this a glimpse of some post-apocalyptic near future, or at least some local catastrophe?

As I read the poem there is a sense of advancing down a path, increasing clues as to the true nature of the poem. Words such as 'civil war', 'deaths', 'nightmares', 'regime' and 'firing-squad' multiply. The poignancy of the scene is immense, even before the last stanza, when the nature of its message becomes plain.

'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford' is not just about genocide or man's inhumanity to man; it is more generally about the sadness of human loss and the fact that most human accomplishments, and most individuals, are utterly forgotten. I thought of the poem today, though, because of the line in the last stanza: "Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!" This is a terrible cry, wrenched painfully from the speaker, and seeming to sum up so much of the pain of Europe and the world. It's what echoes in my mind as this extraordinary poem draws to a close.