Ellen Doré Watson was a new name to me until recently. ‘Be Here First ‘ is a good example of what I think she is up to in her extraordinary collection Dogged Hearts.
From the wit of its first line, through its stunning descriptions of nature in different settings (the lilac’s sun-// starved horizontal heroics, the still-naked/ redbud shrugging off bitty unlit lights’), the poem grants everything that falls into its gaze both solidity and being. The verbs used to personify the trees (‘angling’, ‘spitting’, ‘drooling’) set up the intimacy of their ‘sharing’ both ‘roofline’ and ‘cesspool’ with the speaker. This lends the poem a kind of cinematic zoom-in-then-out shift in focus, which is kept in the present tense by running the sentence on with a comma instead of a full stop or semi colon after ‘cesspool’.
As a record of associative thinking and feeling it feels both improvised and vertiginous, as if daring itself to mask the fear ‘behind our everything’. I love the inner dialogue of ‘Must we dislike ourselves to change?’, the faux confidence of brazenness as ‘just/ a jacket fear puts on’.
Below the surface of these observations there is awareness of the world ‘as ever/ offering now distraction, now danger’, personified again in the ‘neglect’ leaning back on the lawn chair, the garden shed ‘moving towards ruin in its own slow time’.
Even the crows have ‘vowels’, albeit ‘hideous’. Dawn assaults the snow not softly but with a ‘smack’. Everything here is indeed ‘eager, rude and alive’. The one still thing in the poem is the mare, teaching the speaker slowness of a different and direct kind, summed up in the imperative: look. ‘Be Here First’ is penetrating and unsettling, moving between registers, scenes and ideas without fuss or cosy explanation. Richly lyrical, abundantly complex (as opposed to obscure) and most of all alive, the poem is a remarkable account of the struggle to stay present in the moment.
Be Here First
I don’t know my trees but I know my trees.
Their angling for what has spurned them;
their spitting and drooling, the battered
crocuses at their feet. We share the roofline,
the cesspool, I’m responsible for all that salt.
From my stone stoop I watch the lilac’s sun-
starved horizontal heroics, the still-naked
redbud shrugging off bitty unlit lights.
Neglect leans back on the lawn chair.
Must we dislike ourselves to change?
Sick of every other part of me, I approve
my hand slobbered by the horse’s jawing
a hacked apple. I say fear is behind our
everything. Or brazenness, which is just
a jacket fear puts on. The mare’s sudden
stillness says look: fox. The world as ever
offering now distraction, now danger.
But no. How much I owe the trees, the hissing
raccoon outsmarting my heart. The shed
moving towards ruin in its own slow time.
There’s something sprouting on the kitchen
table that’s not supposed to. Everything
eager, rude and alive. Not just the knotweed
but the crows’ hideous vowels; buds blasted
open or whipped young off the tree. Take your
pick: the ridge hurtling for the last rag of snow
or simply lifting off with the first smack of dawn.
Ellen Doré Watson, from Dogged Hearts (Tupelo Press, 2010)
Ellen Doré Watson reads at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Saturday 8 November at 11.15 in the Britten Studio with Julian Stannard and Jen Hadfield, and on Sunday 9 November at 3.30 in the Britten Studio with Thomas Lux, Adélia Prado and Finuala Dowling.