‘Bodies knock in the drift’ from ‘Fire: end-scenes and outtakes’.
David Harsent Fire Songs. 2014
Why are these five words so important to me that, today, after spending some hours reading Fire Songs out of the silence of poetry retreat I am excitedly telling how important they are?
Yesterday we shared poems for critiquing and I brought yet another tsunami offering. The physical and the internal disaster that pokes through any poem with water in it – even it is only a puddle or rain! One of my lines read
‘what he swallows, vomits, knock
against each other in the displaced streets.’
We spent a long time looking for a better way of putting this and ended up with ‘ships are stranded in the streets’ but I wasn’t really satisfied with this any more than with an earlier draft –
‘what he displaced, not merely swallowed
knocks and strains against each other
in the disfigured streets’
or where it started, scribbled in my notebook –
‘all detritus of people and places, displaced shards
he merely broke not swallowed, knock and surge
against each other through disfigured streets.’
sorry about the shards.
And what have I learned from my poetry lesson for the day? Five words can say everything I have been trying to say through many poems. Less is more – I knew this of course but it’s still difficult to put into practice. Bodies – the first ‘thing’ in the phrase carries of course all the horror, the meaning of tsunami – it’s a word that seems to move in the swell of the deluge, bodies, un-rooted, un-grounded, it’s an imagining that I retreat from.
No description, no carefully explicit context – ‘in the drift’ and those words seem to me to contain everything I wanted to say about the meaninglessness, the way what is left behind shifts and surges without any purpose or reason, how everything is on the move but going nowhere. Wow!
I will have to spend some time now on my revision; learning the lesson but not prepared to mimic the line or words. This writing about the tsunami is so important to me because it was the beginning of the end of my Sri Lankan idyll. A tsunami of loss – house, business, future started to disappear over the horizon. Although I was far inland the reach of the tsunami was such that many things were dislocated. For many people. Survivors included women in the North and East ( Tamil Hindus, Christians, Muslims mostly) who survived the actual water but whose clothes were stripped from them and who cannot survive inside the shame and humiliation of that in a covered society where women do not show anything to anyone outside of their family. They included small children with distant eyes and sad faces who had survived but whose family and friends had disappeared. They included the girl weeping over her ruined A level notes, Rao whose beautiful hand built café disappeared under the wave and that he had to rebuild clay brick by clay brick, the family who lived on the beach who had only an inland broken shack to shelter them now.
Yet, parallel of course, because this is humankind, there were people ‘knocking’ against each other in a different kind of way. My business partner and people from our village, and the man living in the broken shack worked together for six months cleaning up the wells and tanks that were full of detritus and thick oily sludge. The Scottish businessman on holiday who sent home my partner because he discovered he was a Christian and it was Christmas
Day – so all of them remained inland while the place where they were going to move to on the coast was washed into the sea –provided twelve powerful pumps in a very short time that were the core machinery used for cleaning the wells. Children and wives who stayed at home and had to cope alone while their men were on the coast doing this work. How I felt when I found,stamped on the outside of clay or brick wells the lizard shape that was our business logo, and watching the new house being built on cleared land by the well team for the sea-shore family.
It’s like the lion and bees on the Golden Syrup team –
But also came brokenness, an inability to ever go into the sea again, change of country and future – but for everyone concerned there was also some sweetness, the drift settled and the new grounded.
How to contain all this though in a poem? I’ve tried many times but now I am going to try again. To work on the poem we looked at last night – and that on Thursday night my Poetry School group will also critique – to dig further down, to scrape through the mud and rubbish, to find the true dimension of this physical disaster.
Well that’s my work for the day organised then!