Wednesday, 16th April, 2014

At some point I’ll post properly about W.N.P Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919) and possibly Tessimond’s connection and response to reading it. However, until then, here’s just a couple of many staggering passages from it. The context is: this is the true account of an extraordinary life. Barbellion was the pen-name of Bruce Frederick Cummings. He was a naturalist, who worked at the Natural History Museum studying lice and mites. The journal follows him from the age of 13 – an active childhood studying nature and annoying farmers – onwards into adult life. In 1917 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The journal documents with brutal honesty the process of facing the condition, and ultimately facing his fast approaching death. It is a time when countless young men were dying across Europe, but here we see death considered face on, by someone who knows what it means to die probably better than most:

                 July 5th [1917]

                 It is odd that at this time of the breaking of nations, Destiny, with her hands so full, should spare the time to pursue a non-combatant atom like me down such a labyrinthine sidetrack. It is odd to find her determined to destroy me with such tremendous thoroughness – one would have thought it sufficient merely to brush the dust off my wings. Why this deliberate, slow-moving malignity? Perhaps it is a punishment for the impudence of my desires. I wanted everything so I get nothing. I gave nothing so I receive nothing. I am not offering up my life willingly: it is being taken from me piece by piece, while I watch the pilfering with lamentable eyes.

I have tended my resignation and retire on a small gratuity.

Which sounds bleak, and is bleak, and the final section of the book I’ve found it’s only possible to get through in very small sections – but it’s not without humour too – his wife’s view that she doesn’t want to go into mourning clothes because all the war widows have vulgarised the fashion, and his anxiety that whilst he is happy for her to remarry, he’d be happier her doing so to someone that he has previously shown where the gas meter is. But this is one of many reasons why it’s an incredible book:

                October 12th [1917]

                It is winter – no autumn this year. Of an evening we sit by the fire and enjoy the beautiful sweet-smelling woodsmoke, and the open hearth with its big iron bar carrying pothook and hanger. E— knits warm garments for the Baby, and I play Chopin, César-Franck hymns, Three Blind Mice (with variations) on a mouth organ called ‘The Angels’ Choir’, and made in Germany…. You would pity me, would you? I am lonely, penniless, paralysed, and just turned twenty-eight. But I snap my fingers in your face and with equal arrogance I pity you. I pity you your smooth-running good luck and the stagnant serenity of your mind. I prefer my own torment. I am dying, but you are already a corpse. You have never really lived. Your body has never been flayed into tingling life by hopeless desire to love, to know, to act, to achieve. I do not envy you your absorption in the petty cares of a commonplace existence.

Do you think I would exchange the communion with my own heart for the toy balloons of your silly conversation? Or my curiosity for your flickering interests? Or my despair for your comfortable hope? Or my present tawdry life for yours as polished and neat as a new threepenny bit? I would not. I gather my mantle around me and I solemnly thank God that I am not as some other men are. I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have loved and married, and have a family; I have wept and enjoyed, struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.

Little Toller Books have a copy of the journal in print with an excellent introduction by Tim Dee.

Advertisements

Monday, 14th April, 2014

SuitsFrom Remy de Gourmont’s essay ‘Glory and the Idea of Immortality’ (1902):

Definitions, which are indispensable for dictionaries only, contain of reality precisely what a net, raised at the wrong moment from the sea where it awaited its prey, contains of obscure, squirming life. Sea-weed writhes in its meshes. Lanky creatures stir their translucent claws, and here are all sorts of helices or of valvules which a mechanical sensibility keeps tight-shut. But reality, which was a big fish, with a sudden swish of its tail, flopped overboard. Generally speaking, clear, neat sentences have no meaning. They are affirmative gestures, suggesting obedience, and that is all. The human mind is so complex, and things are so tangled up in each other that, in order to explain a blade of grass, the entire universe would have to be taken to pieces; and in no language is there a single authentic word upon which lucid intelligence could not construct a psychological treatise, a history of the world, a novel, a poem, a drama, according to the day and the temperature. The definition is a sack of compressed flour contained in a thimble. What can we do with it, unless we are antarctic explorers? It is more to the point to place a pinch of flour under the microscope and seek patiently, amid the bran, the living starch. In what is left after analyzing the idea of immortality, the idea of glory will be found a shining speck of gold.

Remy de Gourmont, ‘Glory and the Idea of Immortality’ in Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas trans. by William Aspenwall Bradley (London: Grant Richards, 1922) pp. 36-72 (p.36-7).

 

Saturday, 22nd March, 2014

whitetieAs a child Tessimond’s father tried to interest him in classical music. Lessons at the piano, piccolo, flute, clarinet and French horn were all paid for, but none to much success. ‘The Gramophone,’ he reflects in his journal, ‘was my predestined instrument […] the instrument for the unpersevering.’

Throughout the 1920s he built a sizable collection of gramophone records, particularly HMV recordings; here’s one of them – Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians performing I Wonder How I Look When I’m Asleep. Tessimond writes of it:

It’s jolly good. I don’t know what the tune sounds like by itself, but the HMV version (with lots of “effects”, gagging, burlesque, etc.) is topping. In one part the man sounds as if he were singing through a glass of water – he does a marvellous gurgle on the first syllable of each “wonder.” And it brings in bits of Grieg’s “Dawn”, “All through the Night,” and “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”.

Sunday, 16th June, 2013

dogI first came across the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet a few years back, whilst working on Crabbe’s botanical predecessors. His extraordinary description of the sensitive plant in The Contemplation of Nature (trans. 1766) is what first grabbed me; a near supernatural account of a section of the plant growing leg-like protuberances to walk away. Looking through the rest of the text this morning, I came upon this, which seems equally remarkable considering it is written by a devout Christian in 1764:

By what degrees does nature raise herself up to man? How will she rectify this head that is always inclined towards the earth? How change these paws into flexible arms? What method will she make use of to transform these crooked feet into supple and skilful hands? Or how will she widen and extend this contracted stomach? In what manner will she there place the breasts, and give them a roundness suitable to them?

The ape is this rough draught of man; this rude sketch; an imperfect representation, which nevertheless bears a resemblance to him, and is the last creature that serves to display the admirable progression of the works of God!

Friday, 14th June, 2013

A little more from Dawson Jackson, writing as Thomas Brackley in From this Foundation:

What happens to people does not matter, but how they take it, the returning shoots of spring; answering in love, as quick to quick and the birds’ voices in the air. This universal bear-garden we live in is to teach us this: to love the whole of it. There is room in each nature to manœuvre against every trick played on us: poverty, suffering, death drive us deeper into our resources, so that we sprout again from more profound, triumphant root: a new man, free as air, swinging the world in his hand, like an apple by its stalk. He knows, as an ally of affection lights in every camp, that being is indestructible: its double principle that the whole is contained in every part of it, and bound by love. That word made indecent, not by the American films but by memories of a dead church as the light goes on Sunday afternoon. There too a frost is needed, before words are clean to use again.

Thomas Brackley, From this Foundation (London: Harvill, 1949) p.187.

Wednesday, 12th June, 2013

While working through Dawson Jackson’s papers last year I came upon a draft of, and correspondence relating to, a book which he published under an assumed name in 1949. As assumed names feature quite prominently in my research on Jackson’s close friend A.S.J. Tessimond, I made a note to look this book out. I managed to buy a copy (they are rare, though not unobtainable), but it is only now that I have got round to reading it.

The book – From This Foundation under his pseudonym ‘Thomas Brackley’ (London: Harvill, 1949) – is a long narrative description of an medium-sized English town. It has echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in its attempts to document the lives and living conditions of everyday people, but resonates also with Coming Up For Air, or William Golding’s The Pyramid, in the rapid sense of change affecting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It is, as the author describes it in the opening chapter, ‘not a novel and has no plot or main character’ but, much like George Crabbe’s The Borough, each chapter relates the lives of a different group of inhabitants – and this within the broader framework of the seasonal shifts throughout a year.

As with most of Jackson’s writing, there is tremendous warmth here; it is a kind of sociology born out of love. Here, towards the end of the book, in a chapter that ostensibly is written to consider how the elderly are taken care of, is a wonderful (though not uncritical) portrait of a woman reaching the end of her life:

A moss of small objects grows over everything. Wraps, sewing baskets, small piles of books and letters, glasses of water, medicine tins. If anyone sets them in order they will grow back as they were again. It is the same inside the drawers. Mrs Forrester is a maker of mouse’s nests. No particular type of thing is kept in any particular drawer. Everything is kept in every drawer: clothes, valuable silver sugar castors, pills, shoes and hair-pins, and dozens of packs of patience cards. She never has a pack of cards, and when she needs one she goes out and buys; putting it away in a drawer. As this may be any drawer it is usually not found again. It is the same with stockings. Her daughter, when appealed to, brings coupons to buy her mother some, and finds twenty pairs, mostly in a bottom drawer never opened, and all quite whole, since the lady never much moves her feet. The forgetting is partly but not wholly due to age. In the old days sixty jugs were once found in the house, and none of them might be used for milk. She hoards instinctively to withstand the siege of life—and the relation between her and it is one of siege, for she never gives anything back. Occasionally her memory is retentive. She will remember and describe exactly where so-and-so’s photograph is, at the back of the third drawer down on the right in the old oak bureau, where she put it in her house before last. Drawers for her are permanent shelves in the universe, never moved or sorted, like the larder passages in a rodent’s burrow underground. They are part of her own inner life, which is her reality, and all she believes in, for she is just tolerant towards, amused, frightened and indignant at the rest.

This attention to detail is striking and typical of the book, but it is also the utter seriousness with which Jackson locates this woman’s obscure act, and deems it as worthy of consideration as any other. Hoarding as a way of understanding the self – of understanding the universe – is no less important than the sincerest philosophy.

Tuesday, 28th May, 2013

pearls

I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.

I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.

The quote above is taken from the unpublished journal of A.S.J. Tessimond. I’ve written about the poet’s use of pseudonyms elsewhere, but there is another aspect of this anecdote that I feel needs further exploration, and that (surprisingly) is the poet’s relationship with the Gas Board.

Bear with me.

You see, it appears (I’m fairly sure of this) that at some point during the 1950s, Tessimond’s gas fire in some way broke. It was certainly old – a friend refers to it as ‘obsolete’ – and the above quotation makes clear a somewhat unusual relationship with a utility company. From what I can tell, Tessimond found himself unable to have the appliance fixed, or repaired, owing to his deception. By the time that section of the journal was written, the war had been over for around fifteen years, and it strikes me that it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to amend the name on the bill.

But I think the decision not to rectify the issue represents something else, and that is the role that the Gas Board played in his life – and perhaps more broadly speaking, the role that gas-fires played in altering the lives of people in the twentieth century. If I wished to make a grand statement about this (and to be honest, I don’t – I’m just kicking around a couple of half thought through ideas here) I would say that in the early twentieth century, the gas-fire directly led to an increase in social deviance, particularly amongst upper-working, and lower-middle class, urban, single males.

That’s a view just waiting to be shot to pieces, but my (flimsy) argument is this – gas-fires seem to have been taken up particularly in tenement accommodation and other multiple-occupancy buildings. The great advantage that the gas-fire had was its cleanliness; for this group of people it meant that there was no longer the need for the daily visit of the charwoman, meaning that flats could for the first time become completely private spaces in which arcane pleasures could freely be explored: the collection of erotic postcards, for instance, or homosexual desires, or murder – to name but a few.

The gas-fire became a means of solitary life, and as such, became an emblem of this in the literature of the early twentieth century. The only intrusion into this private space, might be the unrequested intervention of the Gas Board. In Tessimond’s poem ‘Letter from Luton’, the Gasworks almost seems like the hand of God, gripping him in a strangle-hold. It is upon ‘the breezes | From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes | Like a damp frigid hand on my neurosis’. The Gasworks is the ultimate fear over all – worse even than the neurotic fear of ‘red-eyed necrophiles’ in the poem. A similar view is put forward in John Rodker’s poem ‘Gas Fire’ (1920):

The sparse blue flame
pulses and pours
through salamander asbestos,
annulated like arteries—
Like a seraph’s blood
…..[when he sees the sylph]
rushes fast and faster
and whelms in white fire.

Or—like an earthworm
pulsing a thin lymph.

Or like a message
through nerves hid in vertebræ.

The sparse blue flame purrs,
hastens—pauses again—
purrs loudly, gently… hissing
forced from what outer spheres;
god         the gasometer.

But elsewhere in the literature of the period, the everyday appliance of the gas-fire forms an near alter-like form upon which the lonely may worship. It is a much-used image for Patrick Hamilton, who uses it to mark Julia’s solitude in Twopence Coloured (1928) and in Hangover Square (1941) refers to ‘the altar of a gas-fire in Earl’s Court’, elsewhere in the novel writing:

On countless occasions he had seen her like this, staring into her gas-fire at seven o’clock, waiting to go out and get lit up again. That gas-fire – what sinister bleak misery emanated from its sighing throat and red, glowing asbestos cells! To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas fire in Earl’s Court.

God, the gasometer, bestows the gas-fire to those he has foresaken. This idea is similarly to be found in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) where, before the gas-fire, foresaken and lonely Julia sits sewing by night, or lighting it only for her visiting brother:

There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two ‘antique’ hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair — Drage’s: thirteen monthly payments — in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar — somebody’s Christmas present — with ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning’ done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to ‘borrow’ money.

This connection between the gas-fire and loneliness recurs through a number of texts of the period, and I think it’s fair to say that it is a literary association rather than the view of the average home-owner. Few can have looked at the ‘sparse blue flame’ pulsing through the asbestos grate and considered it to be the cause of their loneliness, robbing them of the visit from coal-man and charwoman – providing them with just enough heat for a visiting brother, but no more – and this, I think crucially: measuring out the supply of heat, allowing it to be turned off completely, meant that the hearth was no longer the image of constant warmth (the heart, as it is often rendered in nineteenth century literature) in the home.

Yet here, in a 1943 Mass Observation report into psychological factors in home-building, it is the independent means provided by such a device which one anonymous respondent identifies when asked ‘What does HOME mean to you?’

It must be comfortable, particularly as regards warmth in the winter and facilities for cooking. A bed-sitting room with a gas fire that will also cook, a divan, a chair and a few books make a perfectly good home for one.

The description here is practical, but love and familial warmth is not supposed to be practical. This inventory is not much different to the contents of Tessimond’s own room, and it is marked that the fire renders ‘a perfectly good home for one’ but no more. However the gas-fire is not without romance, as demonstrated here in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘The Persian’:

The gas fire
Seemed quite a friend
Such a funny little humming noise it made
And it had a name, too, carved on it you know,
‘The Persian’. The Persian!
Ha ha ha; ha ha.

Now Agnes, pull yourself together.
You and your friends.

Here, the appliance takes the form of a Romantic hero who is ‘quite a friend’ to Agnes, but descends into the hysteria of laughing gas. It perhaps seems less lonely than the other representations of gas-fires; the narrator reprimands Agnes and ‘your friends’ in the final line, suggesting that she is perhaps not alone, but there is also the suggestion that if the gas fire ‘seemed quite a friend’ then perhaps all these others may be inanimate objects as well. The advertisement for ‘The Persian’ gas-fire, whilst promoting an application in the social setting of nurseries, also makes clear its means for independent living, with its ‘side boiling burner’ – ‘a gas fire that will also cook […] make a perfectly good home for one’:

Advertisement including 'The New Persian Gas Fire' from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

Advertisement including ‘The New Persian Gas Fire’ from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

For Tessimond, though, the fire became an obstacle (as indeed love became an obstacle for him) – unfixable without the outside world penetrating his inner-space. It needn’t have been this way. As he wrote about his broken fire, elsewhere in Joubert Mansions where he lived – possibly in the flat directly above Tessimond’s own – the cookery writer Magda Joicey was penning her book Cookery without a Kitchen (1958) instructing single-occupancy dwellers in how to ‘throw a party in the limited space at your command’. The Stuffed Prunes and Cocktail Savoury, had the advantage that you didn’t even need the gas to be connected.

Monday, 24th December, 2012

king

The problem of the literary legacy, and the reputation of the ‘lesser artist’, is never far away in my work on Tessimond. Why some writers prevail and others disappear, is a question that must stalk any discussion of literary biography. Why indeed should our attention be turned to this specific name and not another? But why a writer at all? Why do we not remember the lives of our mill-workers or school-teachers?

‘I think’ wrote Keats, ‘I shall be among the English Poets after my death’ – well, quite, but then how many other writers have hoped the same thing? ‘The cold-blood committal | of the heart’s pangs | to documents’ (Tessimond, ‘Authorship’) isn’t in itself enough, no matter how meaningful the action might be, ‘the transcription of the soul | in public’ whilst brave, is no justification for that transcription to be read.

This is a subject which Tessimond’s friend, the editor of the London Mercury, J.C. Squire took up in an essay of 1930:

I have been reading an author unduly neglected. There are many. Our literature is full of minor classics which from time to time are galvanised into life by new editions, and then relapse into almost complete oblivion, a few bookish people cherishing them and no one else mentioning them. These resent the neglect. They feel that injustice is being done if a favourite book is omitted from histories of literature or is unknown to people who would appreciate it. And there is no doubt that the injustice is felt as an injustice to the author personally, though he may be long dead and unaware of men’s speech and their silence. This feeling springs unconsciously, perhaps, from the knowledge that if a man writes a good book one of his main motives, almost always, is posthumous fame.

J.C. Squire, ‘Fame after Death’, Life at the Mermaid, p. 245

Squire, now perhaps, a writer less-read even than Tessimond, was in his lifetime a figure of much importance.

In the past week or so, for reasons I won’t dwell upon, I have been forced to consider the legacy of another of Tessimond’s friends – George Rostrevor Hamilton. I’m not going to make any great claim that we should still read Hamilton’s work, but he is a voice of the 1930s that interests me. Without wading through a great deal of unnecessary biography (and this may be his point – biography is, if not unnecessary, then often unreachable and often wholly other and incomparable to a life’s work) his background and career are fascinatingly positioned in the literary landscape of the period.

A long poem of 1935, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ questions this very issue of life and reputation. It may well be the first mention in verse of a ‘blue plaque’, those much-loved heritage roundels which scatter our cities like ceramic graffiti – “HERMAN MELVILLE WOS ’ERE 1849” – informing us of the (often fleeting) residencies of people we have little knowledge or opinion of. Why does it matter to know that Dickens once lived in a house near to where the British Medical Association now stands in Tavistock Square? Where we live certainly has a massive impact on our lives, but does squinting from the pavement really give us any great insight into what took place behind that door years before we were born? This, is the subject of Hamilton’s poem, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’:

The autumn sun slips down the weathered bricks
Of empty Marlowe Square. The last rays fall
Across the oval tablet on the wall
Of Number 3 —
The house you’re told to see—
Making the legend clear
“Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.”

You learn from the guide-book how Sir Jordan spent
Day after day over his labours bent;
How he forsook
All pleasure, exercise and recreation;
How in the third-floor bedroom every night
He burned till 2 a.m. (at least) his light,
Preparing that great book,
So sane, so sound,
So unimpassioned yet profound,
On “Economics and The Population”:
And then, in ’84, completion—fame!
How Tennyson and Mr. Gladstone came
To offer him sincere congratulation,
And how the Queen herself
Wrote that she would place the volumes on her shelf.

But in the house,
And up the spiral stair,
Only the shadows fall
Now, no footfall.
And here, in the bed-room
Sir Jordan’s bed-room,
Only a gradual gloom.

The narration of the poem, addressed to the casual tourist of the present, moves from this interior space where dust ‘blanches’ and ‘light fades’, through time to the 1880s where Sir Jordan sits writing and raising two sons, allowing the voices of the past to speak within the poem. The relationship between the house and the man in never in question; his room – which sometimes seems as a prison to Sir Jordan – is, he reflects ‘a part of me’. Yet what is called into question is the purpose of the tourist’s visit, the purpose of preserving the knowledge of the economist’s 2am finishes – when none of this can truly be known or understood.

Perhaps most striking in this discrepancy between the private life and public work is when Sir Jordan’s wife (never mentioned in the guidebook) is given voice within the poem:

And here Sir Jordan Banks
Till 2 a.m..
Sometimes indeed until the sun had risen,
Night after night
That great economist
Over his labours bent;
Worked out his graphs;
Wrestled with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill,
Until
At last the nation’s thanks!
At last—

Him only do I love,
Waiting here
For him, for the sound of his feet on the stair.
For him only does my body tremble,
Lying in bed,
Trembles, and my heart beats
With hope I must dissemble;
That he will be surprised again
To find my nakedness so slim,
Hoops and flounces laid aside,
Delicately scented for him,
So little.
Ah pain!
That was once, and his love died.

Significantly, his wife’s words are unattributed in the poem, whereas the economist’s manly ‘wrestle’ with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill is what goes recorded. This image of the naked wife, waiting alone ‘so slim’ with her outer clothing removed is a stark image of a society’s values that will name and remember ‘great men’ but ignore those who do not meet that criteria. This is the theme of another of Hamilton’s poems ‘Unknown Lovers’ which offers an elegy to those not given named tombstones in London’s churchyards.

In ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ the mind of the economist tallies each departing soul by the votives offered at their death:

A million candles counting each for one,
Each one the same.
They’re finished, done,
All entered in a register.
But who’s put out the flame?
Oh, Death is quite impersonal.

Our acts and justification of memorial are often misguided – ‘death is quite impersonal’ but we make it personal by selective necromancy. In the vast extent of cities – in the vastness of humanity – we elect a few to save but many, many more to ignore because they do not fit the image we would like to have of ourselves.

What is of interest in the Square,
With its Queen Anne houses, it’s time-weathered bricks?
This—Number 3—
Is the house you must see:
Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.

Saturday, 22nd September, 2012

This is something of a long-shot, but so far this blog has turned up people who knew the poet Dawson Jackson, so the following might have some success.

I am wanting to find further information on the actress Lynn Shaw (sometimes ‘Lyn Shaw’) who also went by the name of ‘Jacqualine Bannister’ or ‘Jackie Bannister’, and who was known to the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.

From the poet’s journal and correspondence, it’s clear that she had a very important role in the Tessimond’s life, and they appear to have remained friends from around 1956 until his death in 1962. She was, for a time, a chorus girl at the Windmill Theatre, and a fairly popular pin-up of the 1950s. There were some small film parts, most notably playing Andreina in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), as well as appearing alongside Joan Sims in the 1956 British comedy Keep it Clean.

Lynn, or Jacqualine – neither of which may have been her real name – was Italian, and lived in Milan, Rome and London during this period. I’m eager to find out what happened to her from 1962 onwards.

Monday, 11th June, 2012

Dawson Jackson is proving popular with people who have come by this blog. When I get round to it, there’s something I need to set down about Jackson, D.S. Savage and Hubert Nicholson and poets who were contentious objectors during the second world war.  I’ll get to that. In the mean time, this – a poem by Jackson published in 1971.

A while ago I gave this poem out in a university tutorial. Alongside it we looked at some other poems, amongst those ‘Fifty Years Between’, which comes from the same collection. All the poems were received very positively, though this piece gave the discussion a somewhat darker tone. It is fine for discussions about poetry not to reach a resolution, though this piece has stayed on my mind ever since as having something about it that still needs to be said.

A History in Two Scenes

1

Her lips I
Like : a pale
Thin petal – say, a
Wild-rose petal. They
Are home : dew – June.

She kisses me, lightly,
Turning her face up (we are
Arm in arm) as we
Say good-bye : laying
Herself lightly, for a moment,

In me – giving herself –
There on the pavement,
Before she climbs the bus

And today’s all picked
With snow and rain
And pleasures.

Actually, I’m going to stop there – this is only the first part of the poem, the first scene of the ‘history’ in the title. I’ll get to the second part shortly, but I think it’s important to consider the process by which this poem imparts itself.

Much of the effect is created by the shifting metre; all the words are either mono- or disyllabic, though the way these interact with the line endings and various punctuation marks, removes any sense of simplicity to the piece. What emerges, particularly in that first stanza, is a voice – a considering voice – attempting to make sense of the vision. The voice reasons that her lips might be ‘say, a | Wild-rose petal’ perhaps indicating that is a mere suggestion; it seems to pause at the end of that first line, the break offering a momentary hesitation as if reaching for the right word. This image from the outset seems sensual, the focus on the mouth is direct from the start, yet the word ‘like’ coming after the line break seems rather flatter than what we expect, as if the narrator is not fully in charge of the image they represent.

The whole of that first stanza is about the lips; they ‘are | home’ we are told, they are (or seem to be) ‘dew’ ‘June’. Much like the last stanza’s revelation that ‘today’s all picked | With its snow and rain | And pleasures’ the poem seems ‘picked’ with meaning. We understand the image of these lips having the comfort of ‘home’ and we understand the immediate beauty of ‘June’ and ‘dew’, though the greater sense can not be articulated – never has snow been more unexpected since it fell beside Louis MacNeice’s roses. Is this summer, or winter? Indeed is June a month, or a girl’s name? Is it simply there for the pleasing phonetic effect rendered by ‘home : dew – June.’

The physicality of Jackson’s poetry is one of its most appealing features for me. He has a rare ability to render a moment both erotic and touching. What was striking in the tutorial, was that the class focussed on the eroticism of this first part: ‘laying | Herself lightly, for a moment, | In me – giving herself –’ indicated to them that this was the language of lovers – and this is a fair and proper assumption, but as with any history drawn from scattered information, it is only part of the story. Here is the second scene:

2

She will no longer
Burst in at my door
To show me what, today,
She has been buying. I shall not now

Be putting out those bits of food,
When she blows in to
My room
Hungry. Her men

She’ll no more tell
Me of, when only her
Pen
Can speak : it cannot!

Have what we still
May, that daughter
Which she was to me
Is lost.

The class, which until this point had declared Jackson to be a ‘lovely, uplifting poet’ (and believe me, that’s a rare enough thing) now turned on him. He was being unreasonable. Was it really about his daughter, or was this a figurative daughter? They demanded biography. I refused to give it.

You see, Jackson did have a daughter – and I’ve gained an impression of her from reading his correspondence and other documents – but I don’t think that takes us any further in understanding the poem. The piece does not get any less surprising, and it would be a mistake to think that this poem summed up their relationship. These are, after all, only momentary ‘scenes’ from the history of two people. We must trust that hesitant voice at the start of the poem, for the narrator is dealing with something hard to articulate. The pen ‘cannot’ speak we are told, it merely forms images from which we develop the history.

Partly, I think, the group felt cheated by the poem – the revelation that it is a daughter comes late on after we have formulated a different judgement; but this does not render any of those feelings false. There’s a beautiful quality to his description of this flighty girl, cat-like feeding from the ‘bits of food’ he puts out for her. An immensely tender image of their relationship is formed here, and it seems only natural that he should view its ending with some regret, as Prospero at the end of The Tempest:

As great to me as late: and supportable
To make the dear loss, have I means much weaker
Than you may call to comfort you, for I
Have lost my daughter.

I don’t think I’ve resolved my thinking any further with this, but I’m starting to trust a little more that that may be intended.

%d bloggers like this: