No 59 - Spring 2008
Innocence when roses smelt divine and Brechtian hard common sense
Carol Rumens’ close reading of two remarkable new collections
The Meanest Flower
Anvil Press £7.95
The cover illustration for The Meanest Flower is a graceful but wiry clump of violets executed in ink and water-colour. The flowers, to an English eye, look thoroughly English, redolent of damp grassy waysides and chalk downland, but, in fact, a note tells us the reproduction comes from an album of flower-paintings bearing the seal of Shafi Abbasi, Safavid Iran, Isfahan, 1644. It forms a perfect image for the new collection, not only locating and illustrating the title but providing a poignant symbol of the imaginative duality of a Persianborn poet who learned her love of English poetry at boarding school on the Isle of Wight, and became more deeply acclimatized to the English literary canon than many native poets of her generation.
The ‘pansy’ of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, the poem from which the volume derives its title, is a close relative of the violet – perhaps the same flower under another name. It is one of those natural objects which, in the fourth stanza, prompts the poet’s plaintive question: ‘Whither is gone the visionary gleam?’ Wordsworth of course recovers from his despondency to find ‘strength in what remains behind’ and new visions to be garnered from maturity: ‘Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, / To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ Wordsworth has not exactly found an answer, but accomplished a swerve into a kind of compensatory affirmation, strong on memorability if a little short on substance. I must admit to a life-long irritation with the Ode: I read it first in childhood – with a child’s jealous scorn for an adult’s ‘flowery’ notions of babyhood – and the irritation still flickers through my admiration.
Wordsworth’s question tastes heavily Romantic and even sentimental to a contemporary writer, but the exiled imagination must be closer to it – the question, if not the answer. Khalvati explores its ramifications in the title sequence, whose 12 unrhymed sonnets open the collection, but it lingers throughout. The tenderness, humility and maturity summoned by the image of ‘the meanest flower’ as most truly worthy of attention are very much part of the book’s moral-emotional register.
Khalvati’s tack in the first sequence is to address directly the child she once was. Wordsworth’s sense of drastic separation does not apply. The 60-something speaker endearingly confesses, ‘Truth to tell I’m ashamed what a child I am, / still so ignorant, so immune to facts.’ And she proclaims that ‘There’s nothing I love more than childhood, childhood/ in viyella, scarved in a white babushka, / frowning and impenetrable.’ When the child appears, she has rubbed her knuckles into her cheeks to burn ‘two rosy welts, just as your elbows leave // two round red roses on your knees through gingham.’ This is a little ‘pretty’, even Victorian – but then, small girls are pretty. The poet is faithful to her perception, and unabashed by the charm of it. Finally, she adds the telling detail: the child’s thighs are ‘like a man’s, wide open’. ‘Open’ is the key word, ending each of these sonnets almost as if it were a radif in a ghazal.
This narrative, child-like, enjoys detail, and colour (’Colours keep the line to memory open’). There are recurring pinks and yellows, in particular. The child in search of flowers for pressing doesn’t yet know their names: she simply hunts for ‘the best ones, flat ones’. Sonnet V personifies them as mythical creatures: ‘They speak through eyes and strange configurations / on their faces, markings on petals, whiskers, // mouth-holes and pointed teeth. They are related / to wind’. Later, they are named: ‘you’ve only to turn a midnight sky / upside down to show, when they close above, / the stars below of chickweed, speedwell, open’. Even the child who perceives the fabulous, animal-like flowers understands that she is already ‘too old’ to understand their language, though she once could.
Childhood, conventionally the focus of adulthood’s big idea of loss, is revealed as a series of smaller losses that the child experiences vaguely but painfully in the course of growth. Time enters, childhood floats away, and then language itself, ‘spelling, grammar, punctuation’, takes over to ‘bend to the curve of your thought’. The syntax is wily, and there is the sense of a weaving pursuit of some philosophical complexity, not quite realized, not realizable: ‘What were the thoughts that lay too deep for tears?’ In the final poem, desolation takes over as a grandchild shreds a catkin and it seems that
Poetry’s on the run,
From exhaustion, the inability
to imagine a larger world and one
too sick to be hurt into words.
It’s a fair diagnosis, perhaps, but seems to spring from a different vision, one in which the minutiae are threatened with loss of significance. The sequence stops at this 12th sonnet, but, after some intervening material, the form is picked up again with ‘Water Blinks’. There are further pieces which seem a continuation of the first sequence, though some are arranged differently as octet/sextet and the concluding repeton ’open’ has been dropped. Flowers and childhood are again the major themes, and it seems strange that these poems were separated from the title sequence which is their natural habitat and whose theme they develop in a less naturalistic, minutely detailed way. The earlier poems can sometimes seem a little over-detailed for the small scale of the enterprise, demanding a bigger biographical framework – in Wordsworthian terms, more ‘Prelude’ than ‘Ode’.
‘Water Blinks’, ‘The Valley’ and ‘Overblown Roses’ are lovely little poems, and perhaps their fluidity owes something to the different formal arrangement, which allows for more clustering of ideas than the shorter quatrains and tercets of the Petrarchan-style sonnet. The child is no longer addressed but the eyes that study the water and perceive the ‘infinitesimal eyes of blinks’ as ‘shrinking funnels’ that might suck you down into a ‘fiery wheel of suns’ encapsulate a child’s vision, the nightmarish magic of it. ‘Come Close’ continues the theme of loss of innocence – an innocence which is not moral but connected to childhood’s sharp sensuous perception, ‘when every word was true / and roses smelt divine’. This is set out in Petrarchan stanzaic pattern, and has a non-Petrarchan rhyme-scheme. And it returns the imagination beautifully to Persia in the third quatrain with ‘a verandah, a sunken quadrant/ of old rose-trees, a fountain dry as ground/ but still a fountain, in sense if not in sound’, romantic images earlier described as ‘birthrights’.
Persia flickers at the corners of the eye, distilled into important memories, treasured objects, a quotation or name. ‘On a Line from Forough Farrokhzad’ (a note tells us that Farrokhzad was ‘Iran’s foremost woman poet’) gives us the original line and translates it as ‘The wind will carry us’. The heart-felt apostrophe ‘O wild seed’ reminds us of diaspora as well as flowers. Sometimes, as we wander among wild flowers or roses, we may be in either country. Later, there are exotic animals at Whipsnade Animal Park and a fresh group of sonnets, ‘Impending Whiteness’. This sequence also uses an extra repetitive device: here, the first line of each sonnet runs ‘It was only in retrospect we knew’. This phrase gives immense poignancy to the parade of creatures, whose whiteness equals rarity (white wolves, white rhino) and also the blankness of extinction.
The ghazal is a Persian poetic form that has seeded itself widely. Again, Khalvati’s twinned stream of poetic identity has a potent symbol, her juxtaposition of sonnets and ghazals. The sonnet is no more native to English than the ghazal, of course, but it has had less far to travel, and has been flourishing here for centuries. The ghazal is a far more recent arrival, and makes tougher technical demands. The qafia’s internal rhyme-pattern can easily become clunky, recalling those polysyllabic rhymes that usually in English denote comic verse. Khalvati has an unobtrusive, musical way with the form: she does not resist the implicit humour, but refines it to a fittingly delicate register:
Heaven can wait. To have found, heaven knows,
a bed and a roof so divine’s enough.
I’ve no grounds for complaint. As Hafez says,
isn’t a ghazal that he signs enough?
(‘Ghazal, after Hafez’)
Khalvati achieves admirable tonal variety and experiments with stanzaic arrangements that emphasize different aspects of the form without restructuring it. Her ‘signature’ lines are always an inventive delight. Rudolfo, for example, from La Boheme, sings ‘ah Mimi’ in the last couplet of the poignant ‘To Hold Me’. Not all is tenderness and wit: there is a sense of harsh anguish in the dramatic monologue ‘My Son’, in which the addressee is a Beslan hostage taker. The form, for all its trickiness, is a precious import into Western poetry, and opens new patterns of feeling for us. Khalvati will be remembered for bringing it alive in the English tradition, learning from Adrienne Rich (who took liberties but still achieved something rather remarkable) and the more faithful and agile work of Marilyn Hacker, but doing a special, rigorous, yet nuanced version all her own.
Khalvati is such a good formal writer that it seems ungrateful to single out one of her more freely constructed poems, but the elegy for Michael Donaghy, ‘The Mediterranean of the Mind’, demonstrates the value of plasticity. Those un-rhymed tercets notate an imagistic and narrative emphasis less available to the sonnet, and allow a wandering, mazy, heat-hazy progress which seems to match perfectly the poet’s mental flow. The details that gather en route as the poet savours the sights, smells and sounds of Almassera Vella are memorably ‘real’ yet faintly surreal. I like the casual diction, the way the intensities emerge without effort, and the fluid enjambement of lines such as these:
You seldom see anyone working
in the fields, save for the little
fearsomely noisy tractors winding
along the terraces. Black lemons,
shrivelled to the size of walnuts,
smell twice as lemony, caramelised.
Cézanne is invoked, unnecessarily (‘Very Cézanne, the whole landscape’). The painterly richness, the Cézanne-like textures and glow, are everywhere in the writing: ‘Behind my lids today at the pool // I saw the sun as one green light / like a green persimmon. Angel fruit. / A green sun like a green apple’. This poem alters the focus of the book; it brings in something more colourful, exotic and dangerous, the Duende, spirit of yet a third poetic tradition that offers an empowering escape from English romanticism.
Both Mimi Khalvati and Dennis O’Driscoll are ambitious poets, but whereas Khalvati locates her poetic responsibility for the ‘bigger picture’ in the particular small detail or memory, O’Driscoll is expansive, outward-looking. No Irish poet has less of the Celtic Twilight in him and more of the Celtic Tiger – meaning that the work is entirely modern in diction and spirit, if not solely urban. This poetry makes its peace, cunningly, with the language of business document and advertising copy as it chronicles the anxieties, delusions and narcissistic pleasures of post-Christian life, leaving the satirist’s moral agenda implicit rather than idealistically proclaimed. O’Driscoll, perhaps, is the 21st century’s equivalent of an Augustan. His poetry is balanced, rational and fond of a well-constructed argument. ‘And on What’ lays it straight down the line: ‘And on what/ presumption / parents/ may one ask / do you blithely / give life / act as catalyst / for future generations / grant your bodily urgings/ precedence over mind…’.
In an interview given a few years ago to Mark Thwaite, O’Driscoll mentioned Brecht as an early influence. The influence has been well absorbed, but it underlies the characteristic note of hard common sense. There is a terse aspect to O’Driscoll’s style; this, together with his skill with the occasionally unpunctuated poem, reflects more recent central and Eastern European influences. In the crisp, bitterly dry interrogation ‘And on What’, O’Driscoll is at his most Brechtian, coolly unforgiving and more judgemental than amused as he juxtaposes self-indulgent humanity’s ‘instinct / for survival / and your / perpetuation / of death’s / lineage’. There is greater humour, but equal subversive force, in ‘The Call’, where God appears alternately as an unsatisfactory company-director who has perhaps ‘ceased believing in his mission statement’ and refuses to satisfy our demands for ‘hands-on customer service’ and a charismatic tyrant, now deposed, leaving the space on the wall where his photograph hung to be occupied, no less scarily, by a ‘hall mirror’.
Unambiguous ‘reality’, ‘reality’ as seen by the clever, mildly existentialist man-in-the-street, is O’Driscoll’s measure. But there are now harsher connotations to the word, as the title sequence demonstrates with eight brisk eight-lined poems that confront in plain language mortally plain truths, under such titles as ‘Death’, ‘Consultation’, ‘Observation’, ‘Textbook’. The latter speaks in the chillingly detached tones of medical expertise:
If not removed, there’s a solid chance
the lump will eventually prove malignant.
If removed, it may grow back.
If malignant, it will almost certainly have spread.
Finally, yet another form of reality checks in – sarcasm, irony, call it what you will, it embodies the ruthless life-force as well as the obscure pathology of pleasure-centred Western consumerism:
How can we recover from the recurring attacks
of lovemaking we’ve known? What counselling
might reconcile us to our children’s growing success,
allay the trauma of being spoiled for choice?
The overall tone of the collection suggests that some brush with fate has occurred, if only the ‘mortality check’ of turning 50. The latter is one of the concerns of the sequence ‘Fifty o’Clock’, and generates a predictably enjoyable humour about cagey insurance brokers and the first reading glasses that steadily blackens as the sequence progresses: ‘Inseparable, my body and I, till death do us part. Death, the bad company I’ll fall in with, last thing my parents would have expected of me.’ Poetry’s long-established liaison with death has taken a new twist, reflecting the fact that, unlike our forebears, modern humans really have trouble feeling completely convinced that they will ever ‘stoop that low’ and actually die. The mixture of short prose paragraph and lineated free verse here gives the effect of recitative and low-key aria. Lyricism is kept at bay, though the ultimate verse elegy (’after Hans Verhagen’), spare, starkly admitting the ‘agonising spasms’ of a cancer death, achieves the only kind of ‘lift’ available: ‘the miracle was that a ramshackle house / proved habitable so long.’
But more is happening in the poet’s reality than aging and death. There is a good deal of unrestrained sensuous richness in the writing: rural landscapes are recovered, the sky and simple daylight rejoiced in. A beautiful, fable-like poem, ‘There was’, almost stops time in its simple, un-showy series of childhood memories, and finally achieves the longed-for stasis in a minimalist, haiku-shaped last stanza: ‘snow lodging / in that yard / would never melt.’ A tour-de-force on the topic of ‘Bread and Butter’ evokes poetry’s most neglected sense in a frankly mouth-watering eulogy of ‘all the slices of life bread has treated you to’ – from batch pans and pub sandwiches to ‘char-marked nan…/…coriander-enhanced, ghee-brushed, Sri Lanka shaped.’ Another, ‘Meeting Points’, memorializes the exhilarations of the business-class traveller:
such happy release when
the meeting having gone your way
nothing added under AOB,
you scoop the briefing files
into your overnight valise, leaving
just enough spare time to grab
a magnum from duty-free,
claim your frequent flier miles,
beat the final boarding call.
Death, taxes and worry over air-miles seem far away.
In the poem based on Enzensberger’s ‘Cassandra’, gloomy prophecies (‘before long’, ’too late’) are intercepted with an almost cheery ‘Hang on a minute, though./ How many years does/ “before long” add up to?’, and later the answer seems to be ‘Forever’.
The poem of that name imagines an unthreatened populous world getting on with its future, its ceaseless regeneration mimed through anaphora. There is much brilliantly observed novelistic detail (‘Forever the tall schoolboy with pony-tail and full-length leather coat. And forever the small one, pate shaved almost bald, nursing a cigarette like a sore finger’). Gloomier predictions remain minimal (‘Forever the laughter fading, a dropped coin spinning to a wobbly stop’). The psalm-like structure and the whole sense of glorious replication build a celebratory mood, yet the final line seems deliberately to protest too much: ‘Forever. And ever. All going well.’ The reader suspects an ironical little rain-cloud has been sent to dampen, if only minimally, the merry queue.
The volume concludes with a weather-packed long poem, an expansive ode to daylight, ‘Skywriting’. O’Driscoll can reignite a cliché or catch-phrase with the best, and the refreshing vitality of many of his poems comes at least partly from the way he skates on the edge of jaded registers and strikes sparks, but there are moments in ‘Skywriting’ when slick allusions pile up a little desperately (‘The sun enjoys its final fling, a last fine careless / rapture, burning its midday oil’). Intensity here devolves into a dutiful-sounding concern with climate change and the ‘shift in the balance of planetary power’. ‘Carbon footprint’ was a potent metaphor not long ago, but journalism has already stunned it, and O’Driscoll scarcely revives it by placing it on ‘the sands of time’. Greater daring is rewarded, as in the passage where ‘those mountain / peaks, plastered with newly minted snow, / that could be the illustration on a tin / of breath fresheners will be haloed / at sunset with a violet other-worldly rim’. Beyond the cleverness is an eye that really has looked hungrily at light and clouds and sky, and measured that light’s shrinking. The culminating stanza clearly wants to evade irony, daring to settle for an uncertain future and enjoy what is still promised: ’But, over today’s horizon, May / appears in perfect working order, / seen in the best possible light; / bringing out the colour in furze bushes, / granting leaves a seasonal reprieve.’ The mundane-ness of the metaphors implied in ‘working order’ and ‘reprieve’, though, signal once more a simultaneous anti-epiphany.
‘No-one can look at death or the sun’ begins one stanza of ‘Skywriting’. Reality Check proves O’Driscoll can do both, before homing in to restore equilibrium to the celebrant of the sensual life and the prophet of doom alike. If he mocks his own Panglossian enthusiasm, registering mid-celebration that everything may not quite be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, the vision remains essentially that of a reluctant optimist. O’Driscoll is pre-eminently entertaining, and even on the page his best poems have all the aplomb he brings to stage performance. Pangloss should be reading him.
Carol Rumens is the author of 14 collections of poems, the latest being Poems 1968–2004 (Bloodaxe), as well as occasional fiction, drama and translation. Her lectures on poetry in the Newcastle University Lecture Series are published by Bloodaxe as Self Into Song.
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