Saturday 10 December 2011

"Her Fevered Smile By Night": Louise Imogen Guiney's 'The Lights of London'

THE LIGHTS OF LONDON (Louise Imogen Guiney)

The evenfall, so slow on hills, hath shot
Far down into the valley’s cold extreme,
Untimely midnight; spire and roof and stream
Like fleeing specters, shudder and are not.
The Hampstead hollies, from their sylvan plot
Yet cloudless, lean to watch as in a dream,
From chaos climb with many a sudden gleam,
London, one moment fallen and forgot.

Her booths begin to flare; and gases bright
Prick door and window; all her streets obscure
Sparkle and swarm with nothing true nor sure,
Full as a marsh of mist and winking light;
Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure
Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night.

I have a view from my current flat in south London that I never thought I'd have in this city. It looks out into a small park, which is a blessing just for the glimpse of trees and greenery; but beyond are almost all the major landmarks of the London skyline. Battersea Power Station is proudly front and centre; Big Ben and Westminster distant but clear, a small curve of the London Eye, the elegant, futuristic towers of the City. A friend pointed out one day that if you know where to look, you can even see the dome of the National Gallery, and Nelson's column.

I often prefer London by night. Especially if I have had a chance to watch a magnificent sunset first, which is surprisingly often the case. The City is like a huge space station, complete with bright red twinkles on the highest points, and the near-complete spikey Shard, even rising well above the lovable Gherkin. Big Ben's moon face is pale and watchful, and I can never quite believe that's what I'm looking at from my window.

Those London bridge walks, too; those delight me by day, but thrill me by night. I love emerging from Embankment station and seeing what colours are washing over the National Theatre that night. Off in the distance, the Oxo Tower and the magnificent spotlit St Paul's. The best view is from Waterloo Bridge. It gives those striking views both down to the City and to Westminster, and allows a view of the beautiful Hungerford Bridge, too.

Louise Imogen Guiney's sonnet 'The Lights of London' was unfamiliar to me, as was the poet - a turn-of-the-century American woman who also lived in England and was known for both poetry and criticism, now mostly lost to time. This poem struck me with its London truth. When I read it I can so vividly see nineteenth-century London and the gradual starring of its nights with the lighting of the gaslamps. A few years ago I went to see U2 at Wembley, and when they played 'Moment of Surrender' as the magnificent finale, all the lights were turned out and we all held up our lit mobile phones. Although it was so simple, it was one of the most beautiful moments of a show mostly filled with a very impressive light show. I imagine London in this poem "turning on" at night in much the same way.

This poet understood London skies, I think...those hazy, ever-changing, heartbreaking skies. And "Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure/Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night" - yes, that is London, to the very core.

Thursday 8 December 2011

MacLeish's 'You, Andrew Marvell': The Fall of Vast Empires

YOU, ANDREW MARVELL (Archibald MacLeish)

The above link will take you through to 'You, Andrew Marvell' on the Poetry Foundation website, as well as other poems and biographical information about MacLeish.

I think that 'You, Andrew Marvell' - which I could probably rank amongst my favourite poems - was another random anthology-browsing discovery; not sure, though. I was a bit puzzled for years by the title, though I'd read Marvell by then. Marvell's 'The Garden' is definitely a favourite poem, and I would like to write about it another time.

Eventually I realised, or had it pointed out to me (probably the latter - I'm often quite slow on the uptake) that it was a reference to Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress', the best pickup artist poem ever written by a long shot. The following lines from the Marvell poem are especially notable:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
[...] But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

'To His Coy Mistress' is very funny, and very clever, and weirdly erotic; but it is also sobering. Whether or not you're after something more profound than the speaker, time is hurrying on.

'You, Andrew Marvell' is no kind of love poem - it is about the vast empires that Marvell alluded to, and their eventual fall and decay. The poem has a racing, incantatory energy which has sometimes been criticized as repetitive, but to me it makes the poem. I see the speaker on a beach, with a vision in his mind of night's shadow falling over the turning earth. But he sees more than nightfall; he sees empires being swept under. The places that he name-checks were once world powers, and now are entirely gone, or are only weak copies of their former glory.

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

MacLeish was American, and I picture the speaker on a beach in the Hamptons of Long Island, or perhaps Florida. The shadow has already passed over the westernmost parts of Europe; now it looms over the sea and advances toward the coast of America. What really makes this poem special, after all the forward momentum, is the deliberate breath drawn in the split last stanza:

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on...

Is it simply to draw breath? Is it fear, is it wonder?

I thought of this poem today partly because I hadn't read it for a while and I love it; but also, 2011 has surely been a year to reflect upon the fall of empires. There have been few years like it in my lifetime.

I took the above picture in Cairo in August/September 2010, at the gates of the Egyptian Museum. Only a few months later the country was flung into upheaval with the Egyptian Revolution - outside those very gates, and occasionally inside - and the growing impetus of the Arab Spring. Recently I saw a photo from 2010 of an African-Arab summit where the leaders of Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia all stood together in the front row. Now, all have fallen and one is dead.

Other "empires" have been shaken; Japan, one of the largest economies in the world, after an appalling disaster which killed tens of thousands; the financial powers, through economic crisis and protest movements. This has been a momentous year. What will 2012, now so close, bring?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

'I Am!' - John Clare

I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death's oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems;
And e'en the dearest - that I loved the best -
Are strange - nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below - above the vaulted sky.

I particularly love the last stanza of this poem, although I think John Clare was dreaming of some lonely spot in England, not Antarctica.

Interestingly, Clare wrote about "the living sea of waking dreams" (and "shipwreck", sadly). As I said previously - a universal, often unconscious symbol.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Sea Breezes in the City: Claude McKay's 'Subway Wind' and the Poetry of the Ocean

SUBWAY WIND (Claude McKay)

The above link will take you through to the poem 'Subway Wind' by Claude McKay, on the Poetry Foundation website.

When you grow up near the sea, how can you not continue to dream of it forever? Admittedly, the sea of my childhood and my dreams is not the one depicted in the poem, or the one in the picture above, which was taken on a trip to Okinawa, Japan a year ago. In the Pacific Northwest, the sea is about ten degrees year-round (I think - at any rate, it is extremely cold. I've been swimming in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, so I speak from personal experience). It booms and echoes and sometimes crashes over the sea-wall during the occasional "marine bomb" windstorms. On the days which strike the perfect balance of wind and fine weather, windsurfers skim the waves like birds with fluorescent wings. Sometimes the sunlight glancing off the water is so bright that they are almost lost in it.

Most importantly: if you grow up on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, the sea is everywhere. I used to orient myself by it in the city; away from the sea, toward the sea. It was certainly more meaningful than north and south. My parents' house is a five-minute walk from the seafront. My favourite cafe, by Ogden Point, was so close to the water it was practically on it, and there was a dive shop on the ground floor. Some days you can smell the salt. There were so many mornings when I woke up to the sound of the foghorn; melancholy, but also pleasant and reassuring, at least if you didn't have to go much anywhere.

Then you move away, and the sea isn't everywhere any more. I lived in Dublin for three years and given that it is a port city, I did not take enough advantage of the proximity of the sea. I had to make an effort to go out to Sandymount or Howth, or down the coast to Brittas Bay, and it didn't happen nearly often enough. It was accessible, but not "everywhere" to the same extent as it was on Vancouver Island. In London, the sea is too far away for everyday. Much too far away. The closest I usually get is occasionally standing on Westminster Bridge, watching an influx of gulls, hearing their bitter cries and perhaps a sharp sudden sea-smell. All that will really give the landlocked sea-lover is a sudden pang.

Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet who spent much of his life in the United States battling racism, wrote beautifully of these longings in 'Subway Wind'. He describes "captive wind that moans for fields and seas"; a wind that, like everyone in the subway, is trying to get to somewhere that it loves better than the dark and haunted underground. Sometimes, on the London Underground, you can see it in people's faces. They have the still face and the far-off stare, and you know that they are somewhere else. Perhaps by the sea.

I've also been reading Derek Walcott, the great poet of St Lucia, and though his work is resonant with the complexities of history and colonialism, it is particularly resonant with the sea. It is literally present in so many of his poems, and where the poems step away from the shore and are landlocked, it still intrudes as metaphor:

I watch the huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn
like a heaving sea without crests, [...]
all this before the rain scarily pours from the burst,
sodden canvas of the sky like a hopeless sail,
gusting in sheets and hazing the hills completely
as if the whole valley were a hull outriding the gale
and the woods were not trees but waves of a running sea.

(taken from 'White Egrets III')

You would hardly know that the poem was about a valley, and not about the sea. But the sea is so vast and inclusive and overpowering that if it was a part of your childhood, it will echo through your psyche forever.

Thursday 1 December 2011

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner': Coleridge Goes To Antarctica and Gets Back In Time to Ruin One Out of Three Wedding Guests' Day

From THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

And now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong;
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

With sloping masts and dipping prow,
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe,
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled.

Listen, stranger! Mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice mast-high came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken--
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is possibly Samuel Taylor Coleridge's most famous work, although personally I probably still prefer 'Frost at Midnight' and especially 'Kubla Khan'. This is only a very brief excerpt from the very long original poem, which appeared in Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. It has variously been interpreted as a parable about the sanctity of nature and all living things, a Christian allegory, or simply a great story which warns the reader not to randomly kill an albatross or stop for an Ancient Mariner while en route to a wedding.

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' may also have taken some inspiration from some of the earliest Antarctic exploration of the eighteenth century, including the voyages of Captain James Cook through the Pacific Ocean into the Antarctic Circle. Coleridge obviously never went near the Antarctic, but "ice mast-high...As green as emerald" is pretty spot-on. The picture which I have posted above is of Ernest Shackleton's ship Endurance, which was trapped in the Antarctic pack ice in 1915 - leading to the failure of the expedition, but even greater acts of heroism and the safe return of all of Shackleton's men. It could be an illustration for this passage from the 'Ancient Mariner'.

I have Antarctic dreams and have had them for several years now. Not dreams while I'm asleep, usually - but sometimes it feels like a vast white expanse, translucent ice castles and heroic beard-encrusted men wandering amongst penguins are all a constant part of my mental landscape. It has actually been well over ten years since I first read Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita and that was when my long walk into the ice fields of this southern desert - for Antarctica is considered a desert - began. I picked up the book a bit sceptically, intrigued because it was shelved under "travel" and at the time I was reading any and all travel books. I did think there was a pretty good chance that it would be boring. How much can you say about ice?

I was completely captivated by Wheeler's account of her trips to Antarctica, the eccentric characters she met at McMurdo Sound, her South Pole journey, her time at Scott's hut. She writes with humour and charisma but also offers moving descriptions of the peace and serenity she found there: a "certainty" which she calls "something that put everything else - everything that wasn't Antarctica - in true perspective." She continues: "I felt as if I was realigning my vision of the world through the long lens of a telescope. It emanated from a sense of harmony." I have not yet been to Antarctica, but I have had very short sojourns in the Moroccan Sahara and the Western Desert in Australia - as well as a part of the Okanagan in British Columbia which I believe is considered a desert ecosystem. The sense of peace is almost overwhelming. I remember that as an experiment, during my overnight with a friend in the Sahara, in a Berber camp, I made the experiment of trying to worry. Usually this is something that I find all too easy. Here, I was unable to do it. I felt as though the top of my head had opened up and the worries were floating away into the darkness. I imagine that Antarctica would be similar - but on the flip side.

I chase this particular fascination in various ways. Antarctica also fits in well with my hero complex, although I will probably never stop debating whether Scott was a hero or a selfish fool, or both. But who can forget the words of Oates, one of his companions who met the same death: "I am just going outside and may be some time"? Currently I'm reading The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, also one of Scott's men. Shackleton trumps Scott, with his extraordinary voyage in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and the saving of all his men (many of whom then went off to die in the war.) I recently saw a wonderful performance by LAMDA Drama School students of Terra Nova, about Scott's expedition and his relationships with his wife and with Amundsen - very moving. I have been revelling in the BBC's new series Frozen Planet, with some of the most incredible footage ever seen of penguins soaring in a graceful but slightly ridiculous manner through the air to belly-flop on the ice; killer whales and their frightening phalanx manoeuvres to create a wave that will wash a poor seal to its eventual death; the incredible, perspective-defying walls of ice. Frozen Planet is also about the Arctic, which has a more wonderful variety of animal life, including wolves, my favourites. But Antarctica is - Antarctica. There is no other place like it on earth: hostile, overwhelming, blindingly beautiful.

Whether or not I ever go there - and I hope that some day I will - I know that for me Antarctica is above all a kind of spiritual landscape. My friends have grown used to me posting "I'm moving to Antarctica" on my Facebook status updates. In a sense, that's not usually a good thing. It means I want to run away, that life is overwhelming, that people in particular are exhausting and selfish and I'd prefer the company of penguins, scary whales, and ice. But at the very least it comforts me to know that it is there; another place, perhaps even more beautiful than the Sahara, where I would find myself completely unable to worry.