Ann Gray and I were chatting the other day. We were trying to decide how long we had known each other. Ann thought we met at the launch of The New Exeter Book of Riddles. I thought it was at Exeter Phoenix, at Uncut Poets, the open mic night Ann founded in the late Nineties.
How long was it, we wondered, ten years, longer? Neither of us knew.
In any case, it does not really matter, as it doesn’t when you are in the company of someone you trust. This is important because when I come across Ann’s poems, in the Guardian, say, or the Rialto, it takes less time for me to find the wavelength of the poem in question. If you do not know her work I urge you to check out her last two books in particular, both published by Headland Books.
I first came across ‘mercifully ordain that we may become aged together’ in the Rialto. It is taken from Ann’s most recent collection, At the Gate, and shares what I think of as that book’s central preoccupation: how can we live with attention to those we love the most.
The poem is spoken in an easy-going demotic which belies its cleverness. It flirts with becoming a well-behaved sonnet, then veers off at the fifth line, as if it has more important business in mind.
All that happens is a man helping his wife into her coat in a coffee shop. There is no extra commentary. There is nothing complicated about the diction or the scene it describes. Yet I find it completely harrowing.
The more I read the poem the more convinced I am that the poem achieves its power in the gap between the unfulfilled promise of its title and the expression of everyday love which is described. The key to this is the ‘c’/’ck’ sounds in the middle of the poem, contained in the words ‘jink’, ‘hoick’, ‘neck’ and ‘tucked’. These are like breath catching in the throat, as at the start of tears. Everything either side of them is smooth, in phrasing which chimes in pairs of words: ‘shoulders’/’shopping’, ‘feet’/’freed’, ‘helping’/’held’. This is re-emphasised in the repeated ‘He must have/done this for years, this exact same thing for years.’
The entrance and exit of the poem’s speaker are also paired in the details they contain (the latte and the white chocolate chip muffin). But the speaker leaves the poem (and the Canadian Muffin Company) as she enters it, alone.
mercifully ordain that we may become aged together
I was in the Canadian Muffin Company in Armada Way,
waiting for an extra large latte, cinnamon and chocolate
and a white chocolate chip muffin, to take away,
when I saw them. He was helping her get into her coat.
He held it out for her as if the sleeves were winged
while she gracefully turned her back to shrug it on.
At this point he did a little jink, more of an imperceptible
hoick, on the balls of his feet, so the coat lifted
neatly over her shoulders and tucked under her neck,
then he freed her hair from the collar. He must have
done this for years, this exact same thing for years.
I watched him pick up the shopping, she picked up
her bag, and I collected my latte and my white
chocolate chip muffin and walked out into the rain.
Ann Gray, from At The Gate (Headland Books, 2008)