Poetry, for me, offers an opportunity to live within another’s thoughts as if they were my own. On this blog I have, from time to time, shared a poem that I have come across as I sit at my PC attempting to work at my own writing. Procrastination has led me along paths to poems I might never have experienced if it wasn’t for that moment of ennui – and the internet, of course.
I have no idea what took me to Louise Bogan last night. A visit to one of my favourite sites, the Poetry Archive, always offers a new poem or poet to explore alongside a recording of the poet reading their own work. It is a strange experience sometimes as not all poets read in a way one might expect and the musical tones conjured up in the mind are rarely replicated in the often scratchy audio. But it is still a website of the very best kind – one that takes you on an adventure in words and lives.
Anyway, tonight one poem spoke to me, stuck as I am in my chair in front of the computer editing my book Shell Shocked Britain before it goes into the proof reading stage (when I will visit the Poetry Archive even more regularly I suspect). I have read the three stanzas through a few times, and although I haven’t yet grasped the full meaning (if I ever do) the poem struck me as appropriate to my mood.
My book is written, yet not complete. As I read and re-read the words I have written over the past year the familiarity is such that the work becomes comfortable, yet tedious. The first excitement of the work is over and whilst I can now recognise it as good enough, at the same time the power of the words I know almost by heart is fading. I know that to ensure it is really successful (in the sense that it is as I intended it to be) I have to look at it again and really see it. Having pulled it apart, discarded, re-written and re-built I am, at last beginning to understand it as a whole – a physical book that will, I hope, be read for the first time, fresh, by as many people as can be convinced to buy it.
This poem, with its strange and contrasting images of beauty and decay, of fear and darkness and of journey’s end reflects my current mood. A scythe hangs, harmlessly now, in the apple trees, as the cursor sweeps across the document in front of me and as I sit, as leaden as the statues in Bogan’s garden, watching the book take shape. The words ‘shake and bleed’ before my eyes and it is beginning to feel like ‘a voyage done’. But it is a voyage during which I have fallen even more deeply in love with writing and at times have had to come to terms with some truths about my self as I go on to start a new commission and involve myself in a new subject.
Song for the Last Act
Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.
Now that I have your face by heart, I look.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.
I will read more about this poem, but it seems to me that it has at its heart the story of a love affair – an unsettled and difficult one, perhaps coming to its natural end. The poet is troubled and darkness is never far away; beauty is brief and images and words ink-black.
Lousie Bogan was an American poet, born in 1897. In the 1930s she suffered her first serious depressive illness and was then vulnerable to depression until the end of her life, in 1970. She was reclusive and disliked confessional and overtly political poetry but was admired as both poet and critic of other’s work. I want to learn much more about her now and read more of her poetry. Poetry can do that – inspire you to a little more detective work and a whole realm of new experiences.
So as I continue with my edits, then undertake the first, second and maybe third proof-read of a book I know so intimately, I will recall Louis Bogan’s words
Now that I have your face by heart, I look. Now that I have your voice by heart, I read. Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.
This may be the beginning of the ‘Last Act’ in the writing of Shell Shocked Britain, but it marks the beginning of a whole new performance as I begin on fresh pages for the next book….