Wednesday, January 22, 2020

We page-turn

Just enough time today for another dip into Andrea Brady's 2016 collection The Strong Room. This is the final poem. (It was previously published in Cordite Poetry Review so I feel it's OK to quote it in full.)

  [But I'm not pasting the text from there. Since I'm not in a hurry I'm typing it out word by word. I always feel that something happens then, for example I start to experience the words more as if they were part of my own immediate surroundings, or maybe I might wonder what would need to be different for me to use these precise expressions... Anyway, I find it a useful exercise.]

Marlow One

Sky-head dashing through Chelyabinsk
distant intimate,
tumble yourself out shattering
glassy fears, we know no other.
Life has always looked set
to begin tomorrow, its ancientness
burns now the motorways and blasts out
windows and boils the ice under which you lay
so your corpse comes up like an apple.

With a name writ in water
with eyes clear to water transitional
species appearing to watch
your own appearance, your eel nature
that loves to hide
pinks up and comes wired with songs.

You give names to the unknown future,
make its fashions specific. If you keep
these almonds for eyes, will the rain glaze
with universal justice your membranous head.
Will you retain yourself in safety
if your crushing or exhaustion
is the black hole of thought, will you scatter
your radiant occult sugars
over a world quivering momentarily with peace?

Will you keep the nutty heat of the sacred
in your thumb-sized heart.
We page-turn for you forever,
because life is actually very stupid,
because we bide your admiration stupidly,
in proverbs, in grand precise speeches,
in flashes better than this

shows the limits of my power:
a limit lying alongside you through our intimately broken
night, like the silver horizon of waters
of promises whose writ you are the name

This poem was written about her newborn third child Marlow. He was born on 3 March 2013 -- just a couple of weeks after the superbolide meteor that blindingly burst over Chelyabinsk, as alluded to in the opening lines.

Another allusion is to the epitaph on Keats' gravestone in Rome.

This grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. 

Only the final words are Keats' own; the first part of the epitaph was written perhaps by Charles Brown or by Shelley, though the threat of "Malicious Power" hovers in the background of this poem and many others in The Strong Room -- perhaps in contrast to the "limits" of the poet's own "power". It has been disputed whether the epitaph misrepresents the context of Keats's words, though they do seem to refer to a lack of established fame.

Anyway, AB's poem identifies the "name writ in water" not with a forgotten dead poet but with that other kind of unknown, a  just-born child; it forms part of a kind of thought about the tangible yet elusive significance of every life.

The image of the parents who "page-turn for you forever" is pregnant. A page-turner is a very lowly role compared with a pianist. Yet the pianist can only play what's shown on the page.

It's curious how this fleeting brush with Keats spotlights some concealed aspects of AB's own poetry that -- rather unexpectedly -- could recall the poetry of Keats and his age: e.g. "loves to hide", "nutty heat", "universal justice"... Indeed, the very Romantic conception of a poem at an infant's side, the apostrophe to that infant.

Andrea Brady reading "Marlow One" in Beirut in May 2015. Her emphases at various points were helpful in navigating the poem, I found. This version, incidentally, contains one extra word:

                                                  If you keep
these almonds for eyes, will the rain even glaze
with universal justice your membranous head.

Andrea Brady talks about The Strong Room with Andrew Spragg:

I've read this interview before (probably linked to it before, too), but there were a couple of things that stood out for me today.

One is about the poet's (or at least, AB's) refusal of control. "The poems which interest me tend to be a series of edges and noise, not allegorical code. Even if poets begin with an explicit intention, the poem will take them to unplanned destinations." I think it's salutary to apply that idea when reading her poetry: to consider that while the above poem may have begun with the twin arrivals of baby Marlow and the stupendous meteor, the poem doesn't necessarily remain within a preconceived thought: that initial impulse may be only the first of its edges.

The other is her acknowledgement, at the start, that it seems very difficult to write poetry "in this moment", that is, in a time of crisis. It's not a new thought: it was often mentioned by writers at the time of the second world war. But I expect a lot of people, me included, will relate to what AB says here.

But why is it so? Because onrushing events preoccupy our thoughts? Because the  kind of poetry we write is intrinsically one of the arts of peace? Because poetry seems trivial now, our old self-justifications exploded? Or because, on the contrary, there seems to be more at stake now, the challenge is paralysing, the penalty of getting it wrong more severe?

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