Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Julith Jedamus's "The White Cliff"

RB and I are reading Julith Jedamus's The Swerve together over at PFFA, and posting our comments on the same thread.

Born in Boulder, Colorado, Jedamus moved to the UK and has lived in London for sixteen years. It's fitting for her debut collection to open with a poem that tries to situate her American speaker in the English landscape. "The White Cliff," as of Dover, is as iconic of England as Mount Rushmore is of the United States, at least since Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." It is, however, the physical feature that one sees while boating over from France, not while arriving by boat over the Atlantic. It is certainly not the Heathrow airfields, the more likely sight to greet the eyes of a new immigrant of the end of the twentieth century. As such, the white cliff is more literary than literal, more symbolic than actual. This literariness is appropriate because the poem is about the symbolism of England. The form of the poem also highlights the literary stakes: the poem is an English sonnet.

After seeing the white cliff as the "face" of England, the poem compares it to a series of other things:

the book read backwards, the sugar-loaf,
the main, the high plucked forehead of a queen,
the cracked wall of a citadel.

All these comparisons display conventional American ideas of England. England is the land of high literature, the country with a long past, the command of high seas, the monarchy, the former empire. The poem's speaker says that "half" of her believed these images of England, but "half" of her did not. The believing half walked not on furze but on "furzy crown," and "felt" metaphoric rock instead of seeing the rock for what it was. This half of Jedamus compared the cliffs to lace, "festooned with fissures," in an instance of "gaudy similes."

The unbelieving half wished for the "literal eyes" of a gull that the speaker saw rising above the cliffs at sunrise. I find this wish quite remarkable for a poet to announce. Surely poetry aims to see better through its metaphor-making powers. The gull in flight may be a pretty figure for poetic vision but does a poet really want to see the world as a gull does? A cliff is a nesting ground, a fish is a meal? I am taking this over-literally, of course, but my fanciful mistake is prompted by the word "literal."

I think "literal eyes" must be glossed by what comes next, for the poem's speaker then thinks of her "rebellious ancestors" who left England for America. The connection is made through the parallel structure of "and I wished for its literal eyes" and "and I thought of/my rebellious ancestors." But the parallel hides a sleight-of-hand. When the English left for America, they might be Dissenters, but they thought of themselves as Englishmen and women still, not as rebels against the Crown. The American rebellion came much later, not at the point of immigration. Jedamus could be referring to her particular set of ancestors who might have rebelled and fled, but the poem seems to imply a broader category of English immigrants to America.

These rebellious ancestors left their home for "a more austere one." I gloss the gull's "literal eyes" with the "austere" hopes of the migrants. To see literally then is not to see non-metaphorically, but to see with greater stringency, a perspective that Jedamus has inherited from her rebellious forebears. It is a wish to see past historical cliches and gaudy similes to the thing itself. This kind of vision reminds me of "no ideas but in things," the line by William Carlos Williams, whose paternal grandmother, like Jedamus's rebellious ancestors, migrated from England to America.

The poem closes with another remarkable line. After Jedamus's ancestors had left England,

the cliffs, unconscious, shone and shone...

I read "unconscious" as unconscious of the immigrants' departure. To read the word as general unconsciousness is to empty England of people altogether. But what does the shining mean? Does England continue shining because it does not miss those who have left? That would make for a bleak conclusion for the returning Anglo-American. Or does the unconscious shining of the cliffs attract the Anglo-American to return, perhaps to write on these white cliffs, as on the blank page? The conclusion does tease a reader out of thought, and herein, perhaps, lies its powerful appeal.

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