On to re-posting more poems with comments and expolanations of a sort. Here goes:
The glass creation on the shelf
In the early morning light refracts, transmutes
The arriving light into changing colours and links
That fade and reform with the slightest of gentle shifts.
If you try to see through it the waving winter trees
The dirty yellow brick of the disused hospital
Or the unseasonal swallow swooping, veering,
You will not see them as they know themselves
Or as you saw them when you came to the room.
But the glass is not what it would be in the dark
Or the pale consistent glow of the strip lighting
And if you shut your eyes to be blind and handle it
Like a dying sculptor in clay discovering shape
You will see a different thing and the swallow will be in the dark
And the light will be working in ways you do not sense.
Hmm… I’m not at all sure myself what this means. It’s about appearances, things having many appearances. Glass, of course, is famous for showing things but also distorting them. The glass may let through light or change it. Apearances change with time and with perception and angle. The glass itself has an appearance which depends on the light and it seems a very different thing if you approach it by feel and not sight. Behind the things you sense are other things you do not sense.
The poem has for me a sense of wonder but also a slightly mournful, “Il Penseroso” reflective (glass and light!) feel. It seems to depict a room and the view from the window, and a swallow suggests motion, lightness and beauty as well as things being seasonal and changing, but I don’t know why I chose to talk of a disused hospital. It seemed right in the flow of the poem. There are a lot of soft sounds and some alliteration (“the unSeasonal Swallow Swooping). The most mysterious line for me is “Like a dying sculptor in clay discovering shape”: the image is of someone exploring shape better without sight, something I’ve experienced working with clay, but why is the sculptor dying?
THE PROMISED LAND
I will lead you from the desert of the estates
From the occasional burnt-out car
And from the regular huddles in dark corners
To a land of antique shops and delicatessens
Flowering with exhibitions by local artists
Flowing with organic milk and local vegan honey
There you will not fear what you left behind you
But only something older, starker, simpler.
People in Britain (and the U.S. ) move from the rough and sometimes dangerous inner city areas to suburbs and small towns in the country. I had in mind Manningtree in Essex on the Suffolk border, just such a land of antique shops, delicatessens, artists and environmentally responsible produce. It’s really a nice place, though actually it has had trouble – some cars being burnt out. But when people who can afford it leave the obvious and concrete fears of the inner city behind for such places, what fears do they retain, and have they completely left dark for light?
Remembering the beautiful woods, from wildness tidied
The invention of a quiet life in fine weather
Escaping courtiers’ whispers about this and that
Some fellow worrying about the state finances
She made herself a shepherdess, and even her heavy husband
Consented to be a shepherd for a day or two.
Meanwhile the grimy vacant-eyed peasants stumbled against starvation
And a little lawyer beyond bribes dreamt of a pure Republic
The wilderness banished from the woods woke up
And all the intricate customs of Vienna and Versailles
Shrivelled in a new dawn over green French hills
That looked for a moment like a troubled channel.
I remember where I was when I composed this bit by bit, walking alongsidethe Suffolk estuary of the Orwell (from which Eric Blair took his pen-name) from the Woolverstone area towards Shotley Gate. Why it came to me then I have no idea. Although I have a history degre I write little historical poetry and Marie Antoinette is not the sort of character that usually interests me.
Eighteenth-century culture often seemed to be seeking a controlled, rational environment, tidy gardens, rational politics, unemotional literature. Of course there were many contradictory currents, a worship of the “noble savage” and so on, but I paint Marie Antoinette as liking an appearance of nature and simplicity without engaging with the roughness of country life or the wildness of nature. She was from the Austrian royal family and would have known the beautiful but much-managed Vienna woods well. She did like to spend time with her courtiers pretending to be a shepherdess, without awkward sheep of course! There is something ridiculous but pathetic about her fantasies.
Meanwhile, of course, the French state was stumbling into deep debt and a political crisis, and the frills and customs of the upper classes depended on a mass of poverty. Ironically, the financial crisis was occasioned by military support for the American Revolution (one in the eye for France’s old enemies the British). Ironically too, but perhaps predictably, the French Revolution started with worship of reason and led to a great outpouring of hope but also fear, hatred and persecution.
The little lawyer was a term used by the British historian Carlyle for the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, who was a coutry lawyer famous for his honesty before becoming a pathfinder for totalitarian rule and ideology. The Revolution led to France’s longest was with Britain in which the English Channel was a battleground and a dividing line as significant as the later “Iron Curtain”.
The poem suggests that it is unwise to aim purely at light, tidiness, predictability and rationality.