The Day After I made a leek and potato soup the day after, prompted by the look of the peeled potato going soft in a glass of water by the sink. Beyond the back door, drizzle and the raw morning air argued for soup, added their weight to the nod of the knife slicing the leeks, wrapped up in themselves, into logs, into rings – whites, yellows and greens – that I agitated till they came clean in a bowl of cold water and set simmering with the potato in stock I'd thickened with flour, sprinkled with dried herbs – rosemary, thyme – and startled with a splash of leftover wine. We had it for lunch, liquidised with the top of the milk and heated through and though I dare say you didn't notice the taste, you ate it. It's sometimes too soon to speak about things, but you've got to eat.
Michael Laskey, from The Tightrope Wedding (Smith Doorstop, 1999)
Les Murray says somewhere that all good poems are built with the body, the mind and the dream. I think this is his way of saying poems are physical objects which represent corporeal experience, but artfully arranged in such a way as to represent life as opposed to the process of art-making. In poem after poem, book after book, this is the experience Michael Laskey gives us.
The cover of the book from which ‘The Day After’ comes shows a photograph of a man and a woman advancing towards one another, in full wedding costume, along a tightrope. The effect is both solemn, life-affirming and odd, the shorthand for which is the nowadays commonplace epithet ‘surreal’. I do not think it is exaggerating to make a connection between this and Laskey’s recovery of the mystery from the everyday, and here is why.
The riddling title of the poem appears in line two. Unexplained and unadorned, the events which precede the poem’s events, though significant, are presented deliberately off-stage. Tucked away at the top of the poem it is as though the speaker is forcing what Les Murray calls ‘the daylight mind’ to worry away at these details unconsciously while the poem gets on with the business of relaying them in bodily form.
Far from ignoring the events from the day before, therefore, the poem is in constant dialogue with them. The poem’s verbs (‘prompted’, ‘argued’, ‘agitated’, ‘came clean’, ‘simmering’, ‘startled’), as with the ‘nod’ of the knife and the ‘leeks, wrapped up in themselves’ all work on both a literal and figurative level, and work as a constant reminder of what it is ‘too soon/to speak about’.
The poem’s closing lines are a sleight-of-hand which argue, as do those which prefigure it, for the primacy of caring for the body even above the verbal instinct. The virtuosity of this, as with so much else in the poem (its buried rhymes, its half-rhymes, plus that remarkable eleven-line second sentence) remains hidden in plain view, a proper miracle.