Saturday, October 27, 2012

Julith Jedamus's poem "Belle Tout"

Belle Tout, also the title of the second poem in Jedamus's book The Swerve, is a decommissioned lighthouse located on a cliff at Beachy Head, East Sussex. The poem opens by describing it as "Beautiful, futile," adjectives which immediately make me associate the lighthouse with Art. Why is the Art-Lighthouse beautiful and futile? Because it gives "a flash, then darkness." Its beauty lies in its transient brilliance, its futility lies in its incapacity to provide steady illumination. It is also "Cliff-/bound, cliff-threatened." High Art must risk falling over the edge: the cliff is its natural environment. So far, so good.

Then the poem makes a leap that I find hard to follow. The poet, who has been addressing the lighthouse directly in the second person, describes its face as "minatory," or threatening. It led men "not to safety but their graves." This accusation is accurate historically, for Belle Tout, situated so high that mists too-often covered it and the cliff-edge obscured its light from ships, was a bad, bad lighthouse. That was why another lighthouse was built at the bottom of the cliff and Belle Tout was decomissioned. But in what sense does Art lead men not to safety but their graves? The poem is unclear on this point, but insists on the deliberate fatality by asking the lighthouse, "who could have guessed your motive?" Now, neither lighthouses nor literature can have motives. The question raises more questions, such as whose motive is the poem talking about? A writer? The poem convicts the lighthouse of even greater intention, for "Lives/ were your trophy." So this combative lighthouse kills to display its scalps. If the white cliffs in the previous poem are too "unconscious," this lighthouse is overly conscious: it has a motive and a preening vanity. At this point, I am beginning to doubt my own equation of lighthouse and Art. 

The poem goes on to take away even the beauty first ascribed to the lighthouse.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxBelow, waves wound
xxxthemselves on the shingle, and white cliffs rise,
xxxcancelling your beauty.

So both waves and cliffs, natural energies and formations, are superior in beauty to the lighthouse. The poet thinks "How fortunate" that the lighthouse was moved back inland from the crumbling cliff-edge. Fortunate for the lighthouse, of course, but also fortunate for sailors, who were no longer betrayed into crashing rocks, and for nature-lovers who no longer need to bide the competition of the lighthouse with the white cliffs and waves. 

"Blind and disarmed," the lighthouse now "guard[s] the green endangered downs." This concluding claim is highly ambiguous. If the lighthouse is "blind and disarmed," how can it guard the downs? Or is it only good for guarding the downs, and not the cliffs? But the downs are "endangered"; surely they require a better guard than one that is blind and disarmed! Furthermore, the lighthouse held human lives as nothing more than war trophy, so how could it be trusted with guarding the downs? The best interpretation that I can come up with is that the lighthouse, now re-deployed as a popular bed-and-breakfast and a famous landmark for filming, will ensure that the surrounding downs will be left untouched. It is now designated as Heritage and so the surrounding views are protected along with it. But the poem does not allude to these new uses of the lighthouse. It assumes extra-textual knowledge. If this is indeed what the poet intends, then that assumption, to my mind, is a flaw.

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