Thursday, November 02, 2017


Grocery shop in the Edgeware Road

[Image source: Photo by Adrian Scottow.]

Here's the beginning and end of Laurie Duggan's "Autumn Journal".

gulls caught in early light over rooftops

yellow sky


one red fox, several deer

the length of the King's Wood


mud and twigs

cracked acorns on a wet road


- - - -

smoke turns to fog

moonrise south of Gravesend


rough winds

wrong equinox

The characteristic generous, indifferent, allusion in the title:  LD's poem does have some quiet conversation with MacNeice's eve-of-war meditations. But the differences are marked. For example,  this autumn journal consists of 14 lines, instead of 24 cantos. Macneice's poem covered about 4 months in 1938. There's a hint of a smile in just how brief LD's Autumn Journal is. What's happening in our news media, then? The silence hums with that unvoiced commentary. Yet isn't this poem, too, in some accord with what Macneice says in his introductory note, "Nor am I attempting to offer what so many people now demand from poets -- a final verdict or a balanced judgment".

The poetic is one in which the integrity of the real world is specifically not "captured" in the words, it is not immanent in the words. Yet it feels very present For, example, the poem uses no verbs of  movement, yet looking past the text we're aware of  movement.  The gulls, for example, are flying and wheeling and gliding. How do I know? The poem doesn't say that. But I see them.

You can read the poem in a few seconds. The asterisks, however, are there to tell us that its seven annotations are spaced far apart, in place and probably in time.  Its horizons are large, it's a big page.

The length of the King's Wood is also quite a long way: it's one of the largest woodlands in E. Kent. Placed next to the deer, it suggests a chase, vistas opening, canopy thinning.

The second allusion is to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May .  The springtime of that poem explains why now is the "wrong" equinox.  But then isn't the autumnal equinox always the wrong equinox. Yet the trans-seasonal "rough winds" are, in a way, reassuring of larger cycles.

It was in a park in Bexhill-on-Sea, last Saturday morning, that I encountered the cracked acorns. (Moving between the ash-dominant scarplands of the upper and lower Jurassic, well, I don't seem to spend a lot of time with oak trees and am always struck by them when I visit other parts of the country.)

Only some of the acorns were cracked. This was more about cycling and trampling than the pulverization of trucks.

Pedunculate Oak. Some of the acorns were really big. I picked up the fattest and juiciest and bunged it into the pocket of my hoodie. Then I forgot about it until, very late last night, after luminous dinner at a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgeware Road, and several hours of train and coach into provincial darkness,  I was settling down in the van, and I heard the sound of something rolling along the foot-well then plunking onto the step.

The Indo-European root for "acorn" is very ancient; it meant fruit of various sorts. Words from the same root turn up in Celtic languages, referring to sloes and plums. Preparing acorns for human food is not straightforward, but it's possible. The tannins must be leached off, boiling with five changes of water. But potentially it's worth it in survival terms, because this is an abundant source of starch and fat, things that most easily-foraged foods tend to be lacking in.


"moonrise south of Gravesend".

This could, I suppose, mean a moonrise witnessed while standing somewhere to the south of Gravesend;  and if so, that's not particularly interesting, except for confirming that the poem reports from a number of different locations. 

 The alternative and I think more natural interpretation is that, from where the observer is standing, the moon appears to rise to the southward of Gravesend. 

Let's think a bit about this.

Moonrise, we all know, takes place in the east -- approximately. In the UK moonrises vary between nearly NE (e.g. a full moon in midwinter) and nearly SE (e.g. a full moon in midsummer).

The observer would need to be seeing the lights of Gravesend on or near the eastern horizon. Not necessarily due east, but definitely easterly. It wouldn't make much sense to say the moonrise was "south" of Gravesend if Gravesend itself lay far to the north (or the south, for that matter).

Positioned thus, the observer might witness the moon come up to the south of  an eastward-lying Gravesend. The moonrise isn't, I suppose, very far to the south, or why would you mention Gravesend at all?

The observer would need to be quite a long way off, so that the lights of Gravesend appeared as a localized cluster (or smudge), something you could refer to in relation to the moon.

On the other hand, if you were a very long way to the west then Gravesend wouldn't be distinguishable from the lights of other nearby conurbations.

My imagination takes me to a viewpoint somewhere on the high ground south of Swanscombe. A motorist on the A2 eastbound -- yes, that might do it.

People usually notice moonrises when the moon is (more or less) a full moon, rising in the early evening. A full moon at the autumnal equinox would rise due east. If you were standing, let's say, on Castle Hill, then it would appear to come up just to the south of Gravesend. Though (to quote Ashbery) this is just one example.

The magical power of four words!


Since Ashbery' s "These Lacustrine Cities" has swept into view, I can't neglect the opportunity to recommend Norman Finkelstein's interesting reading of that poem (The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry (2nd edn 1993), p. 62ff.).

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At 8:16 pm, Blogger Laurie Duggan said...

Michael, I'm just happy that you like some of these pieces. It's by no means MacNeice, just a slight reference to a poem that I discovered in the Robin Skelton 'Poetry of the thirties' Penguin. In 1966 or 67 I saved up my pocket money and bought the Faber MacNeice Collected precisely for this poem. I still like it very much (though the 'sequel' seems dreary by comparison). I liked early MacNeice more than Auden really, and still do, despite my subsequent perigrination to Olsen, Whalen et al. Ultimately for me the poets are WCW, Paul Blackburn and Jonathan Williams, alongside my friends (and compatriots) Pam Brown and Ken Bolton. But there are so many more.

At 3:04 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Thanks for commenting Laurie. As so often, I'm reminded of how big the world of poetry is and how I pitiful my acquaintance with it. But those names are in my mind now, marked "for urgent future investigation". A not too distant future, I hope. In the mean time No Particular Place is very absorbing!


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