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
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
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:
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
Hungry. Her men
She’ll no more tell
Me of, when only her
Can speak : it cannot!
Have what we still
May, that daughter
Which she was to me
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.