Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The next five poems in "The Swerve"

I am posting here only my parts of a discussion thread on Julith Jedamus's The Swerve. Read the complete thread here.

I enjoyed your keen analysis of "Bob-Mill." I agree that its intent is much clearer than the first two sonnets. It has a dense, alliterative music that reminds me of Hopkins. The children's hands are "numb, thumb thick as thimbles." They live "close-clipped lives." Jedamus's opening line "Down the dean they came on skim-milk/mornings" echoes, to my ear, Hopkins's "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin" ("The Windhover"). The religious note may not be so irrelevant: it comes into play in the next poem. "Bob-Mill" could have come across as sentimental (Ah, poor chillun) but the final question is tough-minded: "who grieves for you now...?" The point here is that to grieve for these dead children now is mere sentimentality, when grief for them while they were still living might have saved them from hell. Who are the children for whom we should grieve now? 

The next poem "The White Horse" describes the Bronze Age figure of a horse carved into the upper slope of a hill in the parish of Uffington, Oxfordshire. The poem is divided into three parts: (1) in L1-6, the poet asks herself what she is looking at; (2) the next four lines give the literal answer: grooves in the ground. This literal answer reminds me of the literal eyes of the gulls in the first poem "The White Cliff." But, whereas the earlier poem wishes for the gull's literal eyes, this later poem is not satisfied with the literal answer; (3) in the last four lines, the poem pulls back from the site to stand on a ridge or to fly "hawk-high" in order to see all the grooves forming into the "harrowed grace" of the horse. 

So, the poem is a puzzle that can only be solved by looking from a further or higher perspective. But what does the puzzle of the horse stand for? The initial description gives some clues:

xxxxxWhat is this broken body? Flesh
xxxxxdissolves, bones fill green charnels,
xxxxxxxxxxxxblood's washed 
xxxxxinto grooves and channels.

Looked at too closely, the horse is human decay, human mortality. No one will remember us, just as "No one/remembers the battles fought here." The language at the start is sacramental: broken body, blood. So, the solution to the puzzle is redemptive in nature. When we see the horse whole, we see her harrowed "grace." 

My problem (I must have one, musnt't I?) with this narrative is that even as the speaker asks herself "Who can read this poem?" she is already imposing Christian symbolism on the horse. The figure has been dated between 1400 - 600 BC, i.e. very much pre-Christian. Nothing about the horse supports a Christian meaning, however secularized. So to ask "Who can read this poem" is to be disingenuous. The poem knows the answer even before it has asked the question. 

Besides the mention of long-forgotten battles, the other attempt to situate the horse historically is perfunctory. 

xxxxxWhite runnels run. They are a kind
xxxxxof rune.

Ha! Rune! Ha! Druids! The sound-patterning here--runnels, run, rune--comes off as comical, not what the poem intends. I think the poet has allowed her hope for grace to run off with the horse.

Perhaps because the next pair of poems is about ruins (I am a diehard Romantic) and same-sex desire (I am a diehard romantic), it moved me far more than the poems that we have read so far. The two poems “Rievaulx I: The Abbey” and “Rievaulx II: Aelred” are related to one another as an institution and an individual are related, that is to say, in a complicated manner. Jedamus asks “The Abbey,” “Where is … your stronghold of love?” A humane institution should be a stronghold of love, protecting those who love it and those who love each other inside it. The Abbey failed on both counts: it did not protect its adherents nor did it sanction its adhesive brothers. 

The final image of “The Abbey” is haunting:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxIn recent rain,
xxxxxstone basins fill near mossy crevices
xxxxxwhere abbots dried the feet of novices. 

The stone basins still fill up, with rain coming through its missing roof, but there are no longer any abbots serving novices in the way that Jesus recommended Mary Magdalene to his disciples. 

The theme of love is carried over to the next poem, “The Lucombe Oak.” Named after William Lucombe (before 1720 – after 1785) who bred the oak by crossing Turkey Oak and Cork Oak, the tree was, in Jedamus’s lovely phrase, “this evergreen error.” It was also an “accident” and its parent was found “by chance” in a garden in Devon. The emphasis on accident is pertinent, of course, to the theme of love. Lovers find each other and come together by chance. Even parenthood is by chance: one may decide to have a baby but one cannot choose the kind of baby that one gets, at least that was what my sister, who have two beautiful girls, told me. 

The middle portion of the sonnet is devoted to the story of the man who found the oak’s parent. He loved the tree so much that he cut it down so as to save the boards for his coffin. But he lived longer than the boards. They rotted before he died. The lesson? You can’t take love with you. Trying to do so only kills it. 

The sonnet ends with the speaker asking her lover to listen to the creaking of the Lucombe Oak. The tree is falling, it is “no lesson.” Still, the speaker begs her lover to listen to the falling tree, for, really, its falling is a lesson for those who listen.


x said...

i actually live within (long) walking distance of the uffington white horse

-joshua ip

Jee Leong Koh said...

Lucky you! I saw it once with a college friend of whom I was, and am still, very fond. She lived in Faringdon.