Lifesaving Poems: Ellen Doré Watson’s ‘Be Here First’

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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 was a new name to me until I saw her read at last year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. ‘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.

 

With thanks to Ellen Doré Watson

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