This is the second in a series of guest blog posts about poets who have been overlooked and who should be better known.
In the French Alps above the Trois Vallées, the woven steel cables of chair lifts and cable cars hang still overnight as if dead and the cold air seals them in icy sheaths. Come morning, when the massive engines whir into action at either end of the lifts, the cables must suddenly tense, and jump, brought to life, and in doing so they shuck off their icy jackets, the frozen moisture cracks, fragments and detaches from the cables. Down it falls into the snow to print a strange hieroglyphic language in a neat line of verse up the mountainside, looking something like this: /– =\| “/ >.._-^: __\..-|\– `
Perhaps the local people have a word for this modern phenomenon – I don’t know. But from above it is a language in which nothing is cursive though life is always diverging from the linear, it tends to the cursive. The icy steel cable language is, as is so much of our everyday language, false. It may be precise enough to perform its functions within certain broad criteria but if we wish to be precise, to say something difficult to grasp, something more emotionally cursive, a more unusual observation, we have to chose our words more carefully, put them together in a different sort of way: we have to unsettle them, bend them, occasionally find new ones, revive old ones.
Perhaps I’m at risk of making language sound like a hobbyist’s craft. But the words we use determine how we see, think and feel. Robert Macfarlane’s inspiring book Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) passionately argues the loss of regional, place-specific language means we are progressively seeing natural landscapes in ever fewer dimensions, in particular we slip into a more abstract, narrow, linear space. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit”, Macfarlane argues and he worries that the Oxford Junior Dictionary of 2007 deletes heron, ivy, kingfisher, pasture and willow among many other words considered irrelevant in reflecting the “consensus experience of modern-day childhood”. The word blackberry is replaced by Blackberry.
And this is no narrow Cambridge academic’s concern. Macfarlane tells the story of the proposed building of a vast wind farm on Brindled Moor on the Isle of Lewis in 2004: 234 wind turbines, each 140 metres high, 5 million cubic metres of rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat excavated and displaced. The debate centred around “the perceived nature and worth of the moor”. Proponents discussed it as a “wasteland”, a “wilderness”, a “vast, dead place”. Opponents – including 80% of the island’s inhabitants – argued for the particularity and vitality of the moor by gathering narrative, poetical, painterly, photographic, historical and cartographical materials. The defence was also lexical in the shape of a Gaelic ‘Peat Glossary’ – hundreds of words describing the subtle features and moods of what is clearly no “dead place” at all. Macfarlane links this “Counter-Desecration Handbook” to poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig but it also reminds me of Blake’s prophetic cry: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way”.
For the time being, the islanders have won their case. But this is not ‘just’ about landscape. Media uncertainty about whether people arriving at the borders of Europe are “migrants” or “refugees” demonstrates the words we use about people also determine how we look at them, value them, or strip them of value. In fact, both these terms tend to dehumanize the individuals concerned. There is an inevitable loss of individuality. It is a truism for most intelligent people these days that man’s cruelty to man begins in names and categories which dehumanize and depersonalize one group as opposed to another. Nor do I think this process of alienation is absent from our inner relations with ourselves.
I think of such failures of linguistic precision as that icy steel cable language which falls (or more dangerously is handed down) from some high, remote, cold place into our lives and begins determining how we see the world. It is for those who concern themselves with language and scrutinize their relations to the other, to others, to themselves, to work on further brief, individual Counter-Desecration Handbooks, to tell what they see as the truths of their lives as accurately as possible. Whatever form they take, let’s call these texts poems and take inspiration from a marvelous one by David Ferry who, for twenty years, has been admired in the US for his translations of Gilgamesh, Horace and Virgil.
Ferry’s original poetry has flourished in the shadow of his other work and his collection, Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012) won the National Book Award. In the UK his selected poems are published as On This Side of the River (Waywiser Press, 2012). In fluidly, cursively, precise language, ‘Lake Water’ brilliantly conveys Ferry’s attentiveness to the world’s presence without losing a sense of the provisional nature of both self and other, the root inscrutabilities of experience. There is a pressure exerted in favour of clarity and truth to both inner and outer worlds. Ferry sets out with specificity: “a summer afternoon in October”, the narrator gazing at a lake. The opening 20 lines, even as they evoke the light, the shimmer of water, the trees, engage in continual re-interpretations via similes (“As if it were a shimmering of heat”; “as if the air / Had entirely given itself over to summer”) and revisions (“Or rather”; “Or from”) until, in the final lines of this opening passage, paradox seems the only way to encapsulate the experience: “The light / Is moving and not moving upon the water”.
The second section of ‘Lake Water’ reaffirms this process, the perception of the lake “compelling with sweet oblivious / Authority alterations in light and shadow”. Earlier the water had evoked “something infantile [. . .] a baby at the breast” but now – in a progress from innocence to experience – the slapping of the water is “decidedly sexual”. The lake water, at one with the whole process of perceiving it, has become “an origination of life”. The lake surface is “like a page” or “like an idea for a poem not yet written”, or equivocally the “surface of the page is like lake water” before a mark has been made on it. What seeks to be written down is elusive partly as the result of the ambivalent gifts of time: “all my language about the lake [. . . ] erased with the changing of the breeze”.
Ferry saves a poignant twist for the final 6 lines which record a death-bed scene; he watches his wife – distinguished literary scholar, Anne Ferry – who died in 2006. After the moment of her passing, her face is “as untelling” as the lake, “unreadable”, though Ferry clings to and at once denies a last hope: “Her mouth was open as if she had something to say; / But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech”. For all their elegance and plain-speaking, Ferry’s best poems are marvelously unstable, bravely eschewing the linear, poignantly facing up to the limits of the faulty equipment we are given to grasp the world. Elsewhere, Ferry gently devastates with the idea that “death lives in the intention of things / To have a meaning”. Other poets might be reduced to silence, or rip language to shreds, or resort to the icy language, the dead counters of the pre-conceived at this, but his provisional songs instruct, console and are to be much admired.
It is a summer afternoon in October.
I am sitting on a wooden bench, looking out
At the lake through a tall screen of evergreens,
Or rather, looking out across the plane of the lake,
Seeing the light shaking upon the water
As if it were a shimmering of heat.
Yesterday, when I sat here, it was the same,
The same displaced out-of-season effect.
Seen twice it seemed a truth was being told.
Some of the trees I can see across the lake
Have begun to change, but it is as if the air
Had entirely given itself over to summer,
With the intention of denying its own proper nature.
There is a breeze perfectly steady and persistent
Blowing in toward shore from the other side
Or from the world beyond the other side.
The mild sound of the little tapping waves
The breeze has caused—there’s something infantile
About it, a baby at the breast. The light
Is moving and not moving upon the water.
The breeze picks up slightly but still steadily,
The increase in the breeze becomes the mild
Dominant event, compelling with sweet oblivious
Authority alterations in light and shadow,
Alterations in the light of the sun on the water,
Which becomes at once denser and more quietly
Excited, like a concentration of emotions
That had been dispersed and scattered and now were not.
Then there’s the mitigation of the shadow of a cloud,
And the light subsides a little, into itself.
Although this is a lake it is as if
A tide were running mildly into shore.
The sound of the water so softly battering
Against the shore is decidedly sexual,
In its liquidity, its regularity,
Its persistence, its infantile obliviousness.
It is as if it had come back to being
A beginning, an origination of life.
The plane of the water is like a page on which
Phrases and even sentences are written,
But because of the breeze, and the turning of the year,
And the sense that this lake water, as it is being
Experienced on a particular day, comes from
Some source somewhere, beneath, within, itself,
Or from somewhere else, nearby, a spring, a brook,
Its pure origination somewhere else,
It is like an idea for a poem not yet written
And maybe never to be completed, because
The surface of the page is like lake water,
That takes back what is written on its surface,
And all my language about the lake and its
Emotions or its sweet obliviousness,
Or even its being like an origination,
Is all erased with the changing of the breeze
Or because of the heedless passing of a cloud.
When, moments after she died, I looked into
Her face, it was as untelling as something natural,
A lake, say, the surface of it unreadable,
Its sources of meaning unfindable anymore.
Her mouth was open as if she had something to say;
But maybe my saying so is a figure of speech.
You can also find ‘Lake Water’ in The New Yorker here
Martyn Crucefix’s original collections include Hurt (Enitharmon, 2010), The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014), A Hatfield Mass (Worple Press, 2014). He has translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Enitharmon, 2006) – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon, 2012). Daodejing – a new version in English will be published in 2016. You can find his website and blog here.