According to some academics, it’s meaningless to ask what a writer meant, or at least, pointless because we can’t tell. Maybe nothing means anything. This is an attitude that could only exist in academia. People everywhere else are engaged in the risky, uncertain business of guessing what other people mean all the time. A general or a business competitor analyses his or her opponent’s motives, what the opponent is trying to achieve, and, faced by an unexpected move, tries to work out what he or she means by it. A chess-player does the same and even a footballer does, guessing whether a jink one way is the prelude to a dash the other way. Doesn’t someone who thinks himself or herself to be in love ask all the time “What did (s)he mean by that?” and isn’t getting the wrong answer likely to lead to trouble?
Nonetheless, when I attempt to explain what I meant in a poem, I’m aware of being on insecure ground and step with caution. For a start, I don’t want to stop others developing their own interpretations, which may in any case reflect something that was an unconscious influence when I wrote. I also write things I don’t feel I fully understand at the time, but they feel right.
So these are thoughts about what I wrote, not an authorised translation of it.
A gentle soup is around you
You belong to a circle and beat
At an alarm you struggle
In time of peace you sleep
Now the world is warped by a warlike
Beat from a tunnel of change
And the light at the end of the tunnel
Is the light of an oncoming train
But if you can grab a handrail
Hold on to the train if you can
For the scenery’s into this world, and
You won’t get a ticket again.
Probably most people get the idea. The title is slyly misleading: in Britain and America at least, “coming out” is what gays and lesbians do when they declare themselves. Here, though, it refers to birth, our first coming out. The first verse describes the experience of the baby in the womb: we know that unborn babies begin to react to signs of the mother’s contentment or stress. The second verse describes the actual birth. It should be clear what the “tunnel of change” is, and the light of the world outside is threatening, “the light of an oncoming train”. there is a common phrase about “the light at the end of the tunnel”, meaning some hope after a long period of struggle or depression, but the joke based on this is also quite common, that the light at the end of the (railway) tunnel may be the light of an oncoming train.
The last verse tells us to welcome and partake of life. The metaphor is in danger here, because seen literally, if it’s an oncoming train and you cling on to it, you’ll go back the way you came. Still, maybe in a sense we do.
An intricate garden grows around
A careful gardener with soiled hands;
Plants crystallise from secret soil
And all the weeds are broken down
Withered and brown
Patterns of colour, of stroke smooth slabs
Of burning red and drowning blue
Spread like a puzzle to understand
Or copy almost true
Scent swarms the leaves
The bees are drawn
And no-one hears the fall of trees
Reason has died, the gardener’s gone
And vigorous weeds invade the beds
While purple and yellow snowflake shapes
Tangle and clash across the ground
And bindweed grows around
The rake forgotten where it stood
No pattern now but riot of green
Orange and mauve confusors’ dance
That somehow rhythms to a word
The gardener had never heard.
This is a poem that operates on different levels. On the most obvious level, it describes a piece of land tended by a gardener and what happens to it when the gardener is gone (dead?). All his careful neatness is lost but the garden gains a new kind of beauty. But you could see the gardener as God (or a certain conception of God) or as a mortal human, or as humanity in total. Ultimately it expresses faith in an underlying beauty and coherence. The word “confusor” is invented, but I needed a word for “one who confuses” and there didn’t seem to be one.
ON THE MALL
On the mall
The man with the latest mobile phone
Said do not groan
The world’s not wounded.
The world by internet technology
The clever, you see,
Unite and know the answers.
The vase you dropped can be replaced
To a more modern taste
Sign on this line.
So are bears
Good Catholics, does the Pope
Shit in the woods, and is old rope
The thing to invest in?
An easy one. the message is “don’t trust expert commentators, especially if they keep telling you everything’s all right”. I think I was particularly aiming at comfortable lies about what we’re doing to the planet and at the weird idea held by the organisation Mensa that if you get people with high I.Q.s together, they could solve the world’s problems.
The last verse deals ironically with two common sayings.. The first is the (I think) American rhetorical question, “Is the Pope a Catholic? Do bears shit in the woods?”, which is a way of saying something is obviously true. In turning it round to refer to the Pope’s toilet habits and the religious views of bears, I suggest that what we’re hearing is obviously false. The second is the old English phrase about “money for old rope”, meaning money for something worthless or excessive payment for something that should be cheap. Again, I’ve turned it round.
I’ve got slightly out of order here because before this last poem came “Six Strands”, which I’d like to discuss, but that’s a VERY long poem and deserves its own post!
Sleep well – that’ s if you’re not driving or doing a test.