‘Tell us Preacher! Tell us who is we!’

from ‘ The Wine of Astonishment’ by Earl Lovelace quoted by Kei Miller in Manifestos: Poetry Review Spring 20017

Poetry Review has a new section, Manifestos, where poets state what their poetic purpose and meaning is. In other words ‘who is we?’. Kei Miller lifts this into the context of responsibility and asks what is the purpose of the poet today when the bodies stack up on the shore, women’s bodies become weapons of war, the barriers go up.

It does feel as if the world as we know it is disintegrating – or should we say, that in a real way, other worlds are coming to our shores, into our purview. What he is saying articulates my own thinking and feeling. Words have actually gone away because I couldn’t make them encompass the world that I feel, that hurts, that takes the breath away.

The world of poetry seems unreal and hard to engage with. Submissions and competitions, views and critiques, tensions and cliques. If, like me, it is a world you can only know through reading magazines, internet and social media it seems almost wholly composed of people circling round from workshop to workshop, course to course, reading to reading. There is so much to know about but what does it all mean and what is my place in it?

I am not educated for poetry – no degree in literature, no prior knowledge of poets or significant others. I have not read the classic poets very much and I feel my way into what I read through reviews, friends’ recommendations, the sharing of poets like Kei Miller. Sometimes it is overwhelming, I think I can never have enough time to dig it all out, to discover the etching on the bone, to take the scalpel to experience and so to responsibility.

I am going to try an exercise in remembering some of my own poems, very few of which have emerged into the public world- which does raise the question of who, or what, I am writing for. What significant lines of poems come to mind when I reflect on what I have written?:

‘When snow stands
knee steep these tree-ed shelves
mark the pathway.
This is the incidental mapping made by women
working against the pall of sky,
the faint whisper of ice.’
from Reading Elizabeth Bishop in the Himalayas.

‘It’s a mystery when you look at your hands
in the silence after –
a brush still mingling hairs
an unused tea bag
a pink purse unzipped and empty.’
from Earthquake

‘..children buried with their books
a mother mouth stuffed with dirt,
holding a baby against her breast.’
from I ride the Karakoram Highway

‘at such crossings I am suddenly alone.
Crowds shuffle behind.
We are all stripped.
Some lose country, face, the game.
For the rest a cold wind chills near the heart.’
from Crossing the Border.

‘Sitting on the stone steps, washing my feet
everything settles. I reach a balance here
in this drought prone, unlovely plain;
where a picked flower dies in an instant in the hand.’
from Being on the Mountain

‘There are many ways to die.
Our driver hedges bets;
at each tin box or smooth clay purse
rupees dropping through his wet palms.’
from Understanding Peacocks 2

‘Nightmares, earthquakes
the baby floating down the river,
the body caught from the tide by rocks.

The night turns in its jacket.
I am waiting for the split,’
from In the Night

More than enough quotes – if you are still with me what does it all mean? Why is there this need, this passion to nail down the experience and to see the particular in the universal – maybe one more!

At 3 a.m.

opening the back door
and there’s the moon
gleaming orange
in the bare branches
of an oak tree behind the barn
never seen so clear before.
Drifts of blue cloud in the moon beams
give distance to the stars.
At first only one or two,
nearly a morning star
and others late to leave
and then I see
they’re all strung up
high as a human eye can see.

This icy morning
stamped with the particular.
This moon, these stars, this barn.

‘Stamped with the particular’ maybe manifests a bit. The urge to scalpel experience to find the particular within and to see how it resonates with the universal. When you are in the middle of writing, or living, it is hard to see the patterns, to understand what is happening. My last two long series of poems – ‘Bringing Home the Himalayas’ – about the experience abroad and the particular at home, though still in the country as a stranger, and a long poem I am working on about Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon and my own experience of life in Sri Lanka I think are trying to marry these two things. If it is to be worthwhile, to be shared, to be responsible or in any way useful then poetry has to live its life in the common world, to find a way of articulating human emotions and the existence of hope in the mundane and the destroyed.

My own sense of loss relates at the moment to leaving this house but brings in on its tail all the losses of the world. In my journal I write ‘The hinterlands of waiting, these intimations of loss.’ Have I made a manifesto for why I write, why I call myself ‘poet’? I am not sure but the exercise of writing this has been a way of looking at my poetry in a different way and by this reflective sifting I am also looking back at my life from a different perspective.


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