One of the great pleasures of following the Poem of the North project so closely is discovering a wealth of poets and related websites and other projects that I haven’t previously encountered. The 9th poem in Canto 2 is by Fiona Lesley Bennett who is the founder of a lovely podcast called The Poetry Exchange each episode of which is a conversation with someone who chooses a single poem that they regard as a ‘friend’. I’ve already caught up with a number of previous episodes of the podcast, including one that introduced me to a Greek poet, C P Cavafy, whom I’d not heard of before, and then discovered that the latest publication from Ian Parks (writer of poem 2.8 – see last blog entry) is a collection of translations of Cavafy’s poems. I’m really enjoying following at least some of the interwoven threads that are emerging for me from following this project.
I found Fiona’s poem so moving, compelling and personal that it seemed to require a directly personal response:
But I shied from that response initially, and focussed first on an acutely observed detail from Fiona’s poem: “water is swollen above the weir before it breaks
/ into a gush of white foam.” This is one of those things that seems to me distinctive of literary language: that it can give shape meaning and form to something previously observed but not heeded. As soon as I read the phrase ‘swollen above the weir’ I knew exactly the visual impression referred to. Having adopted that image for the start of my own piece, I headed downstream, but never made it to the sea. Although Fiona’s title, with its reference to the River Dee and her autobiographical note referring to Chester fed me a line back to my recurring theme of the relationship between my northern English heritage and adoption of Wales as my home, that’s not where her poem took me.
I don’t know the back-story to the poem, beyond Fiona’s dedication: ‘in memory of Michael J Bennett’, but the description of the painter’s observation of the scene not, as might be expected, concentrating on the seeing eye, but on the forceful physicality, the corporeality, of the hands and arms with force and tension framing “the view you never came back to paint” renders the subject vivid, solid, alive: more so than is the scene itself which, despite still being there when he is no longer, is, poignantly – devastatingly – in the two line volta couplet “like an X-ray held to the light”, and those two lines have a syntactically and semantically ambiguous relationship to the final, isolated, line. I could unpack the varied ramifications of that for hours; for pages. But I won’t. If you haven’t already, please read it. I love that poem, and my response feels like a pale and partial echo, at best. When I included it in my reading at the last Spoken Word Saturday, I changed the last line slightly:
What happens, then, when we hem nature in?
Water swells, appearing still, its force
waiting to be a gushing foss, won’t hold.
It charges to the sea, heedless of wheels
we use to steal a fraction of its power,
and locks give sedentary boats the chance
to cheat the headlong tumble. We have our
reasons to choose the mild over the wild.
But something else: those hands that seem a frame,
held there as if to choose what to exclude
what cannot, because infinite, be borne,
are concentrating a creative force;
the scene remains unpainted, but was thought,
and you, because you knew him, sought and found
what’s hemmed and stitched by poets’ and painters’ hands.
‘Stitched’ fitted better rhythmically, and, on reflection, its two facets: the surface meaning of joining, making and mending, but with senses of piercing, and stabbing pain, lying etymologically alongside seems more fitting in any case.
(While it might not have yielded my most coherent piece, this has been one of my most rewarding poetry exchanges of the project so far…