Saturday, 11 May 2013

Demeter by Carol Ann Duffy

Another poem to add to my own personal anthology is Demeter by Carol Ann Duffy.  I love the dramatic shift in this poem, which in so few words, and fourteen lines conveys the movement from grief to joy.  When I read it in the way I have taken to reading poetry, (line by line, then sentence by sentence etc.) I found that I had to persist to get the exact order of words in my mind.  Ten of the lines are interrupted by the punctuation and an unexpected ordering of words, which caused in my ear slight irregularities of rhythm.  The overall effect is to slow it down so that you do get the full impact of the emotional shift.  And there is a beautiful contrast between the hard words at the beginning and the gentle, softer words at the end:
       I swear/the air softened and warmed as she moved/the blue sky smiling, none too soon/ with the small mouth of the new moon.
   The mysterious line for me is 'but i saw her at last, walking/my daughter, my girl, across the fields,//in my bare feet'
what I immediately thought of was the genetic resemblance between mother and daughter, but then also considered that this story is very old, probably rooted in the time of goddess worship & the goddess traditionally had three aspects, virgin, queen and crone.  So possibly in this poem the mother and daughter are both aspects of the same goddess.
It seems to me that poetry is close to myth in that they both strip the narrative to its essence, so that what they convey is a truth that can be universally applied; in this case the shift from winter to spring, loss to restoration in spare, tangible language.

I recently bought a new book of poems - Drysalter by Michael Symmons Roberts (Jonathan Cape).
It is a seriously good collection, formally exquisite - 150 poems each 15 lines long, containing such a rich diversity of themes that I can't do justice to all of them - I'm going to pick out one or two that particularly interest me.
   After years of writing I'm coming to the conclusion that the real power lies in the thing unsaid, and that poetry is closest to the thing unsaid.  In one of the poems for example, Immortal, Invisible,Wise the first line draws attention to the inadequacy of the words in the title:
   'In such mighty stature he stands'
and later lines contain the suggestion of what he is not:
   'He has become no more or less than sky./ Pylon skip-ropes swing between his feet/airliner wing-tips brush his lips,/
   the sun's print in his eye becomes/ a day-lit pole-star...

In a poem which seems to me to be about the transcendent rather than the immanent, or intimate, God found in To Listen what is unsaid is the need for attention.:
   he holds so still,/ has held for so long this, his repose,/that no one sees him any more.....

   and although the world/is never silent, there are split-second/gaps when you can hear his long-drawn/ breath begin to shape a word.

This is the need for attention in the Simone Veil sense of the word: 'the direction towards God of all the attention that the soul is capable cannot be replaced by the heart's warmth.'  And in fact the  god in this poem is not apparently warm and loving.  But if the act of attention 'consists in suspending thought, in leaving it empty and available, subject to penetration by the a man on a mountain, who looking in front of him sees without looking at them many forests and plains below him,' then the God of this poem is not so much divorced from the world as engaged in a universal attention; which effort is beyond or rejected by man (in the poem Refuseniks), who, like the psalmist in another poem sings 'for fear I'll hear the still/ small voice and not like what it says.....
   Listen.  The unsung is unuttering,/sucking back into itself/the inverse of words...'
(Portrait of the Psalmist as Ultra-Singer).
   Throughout this collection there are images of dislocated, alienated man, who, despite being locked into the quotidian, might suddenly experience a shift in perspective, as in Rare Sighting, or, as in Discoverers, suddenly respond to a call that goes beyond maps and astrolabes, so that he can sing his way home.
Frequently the immanence of god seems to be suggested by the symbolism of song.  In Elegy for John Milton
paradise has become 'an old zoo/abandoned by its keepers, broken cages/ravaged by years of unchecked flora/buddleia, cotoneaster, ragwort,/bindweed, russian vine, dead nettle, ivy?on the edge of evolving into song.'
   By contrast the birds in Abyss of Birds are already sung; both immanence and transcendence are captured in a single, astonishing sentence.
   Hopefully I have suggested that in this collection the frame of reference is large; anagogic.  I should also mention that there are moments of intimacy and tenderness too, as in Des Canyons Aux Etoiles, when the two come together.