Smooth slope of a hill and fornication undoubtedly
taking place in its lee. Ash trees shivered
in a wind that still had the delicious flick of
frost about it. No shame in discussing
a lochan’s peatiness out there beyond the shore,
the presence of trout, or how his hand bent
as it entered water, and then the legs
and chest folded in thereafter.
Our responses to poems depend partly on the lives we’ve lived so far. I don’t know how this short, slow-burning poem affects you but since I first read it in James McGonigal’s new collection The Camphill Wren, it has stayed in my mind inexplicably. ‘Inexplicably’ is no good though, is it? These blogs are precisely about explication. Why then do these eight lines affect me, and how?
The word ‘lochan’ places us in Highland Scotland, which I love, but that’s not enough. The title gives us no clues at first. A title can prime a reader so they know what to expect, or give them a jigsaw piece which only fits in when they’ve completed the rest of the reading. We’ll come back to it.
In the rest of the poem, the five senses are very present. The slope is ‘smooth’ – that’s touch. ‘Wind’ and ‘frost’ also make the skin prickle. ‘Peatiness’ is taste and smell. Ash trees shivering, and the description of ‘how his hand bent/ as it entered water’ are visual and tactile both at once. McGonigal could have said that the landscape was isolated or remote or wild, but none of these large words resonate in the body: all of them tell the reader what to feel, rather than showing us what it feels like. Glyn Maxwell says in On Poetry, ‘Poets – your brain’s in your body’ and there’s no better motto for us. Always, always come back to the five senses. They are always the best way to make the reader share the writer’s lived experience. Even the metaphysical needs the physical.
The line breaks are mostly enjambed, that is to say the meaning of the sentence carries on around the line break. So we have ‘fornication undoubtedly/ taking place in its lee’, ‘Ash trees shivered// in a wind’, then ‘the delicious flick of/ frost’ and so on. Why go to the effort of enjambing, which makes the lines flow like conversation, and then put the poem in couplets which emphasise its… er… poemness? Perhaps to make it feel spacious and slow, so that the space is a visual and not an aural quality as you read it. And I hope you do read it aloud. Poetry is for the mouth and ear, not just the eye.
Back to that first line. Fornication is not a neutral word for sex but a judgmental, Presbyterian or Catholic concept, which is probably why a couple of lines later we have ‘no shame in discussing…..’ I can’t see why else there would be any shame in discussing the peatiness of a small loch, or the presence of trout. I think these people must be fishermen, who would be interested in those qualities. They don’t mind a touch of ‘delicious’ frost, and they aren’t much interested in fornication. That sounds like fishermen to me. So the poem is pretty much a description of a chilly landscape in Scotland, with two or more people in it, talking.
Until the last two lines. They discuss peatiness and trout; and then in the same calm vein, they remember ‘how his hand bent// as it entered water, and then the legs/ and chest folded in thereafter.’ Someone died here, surely. Someone known to them, so well known they don’t name him, crumpled into the water and collapsed. If he was diving, his chest would hit the water before his legs. ‘Folded’ is a slow, relaxed word. He didn’t plunge or jump, he folded. At least one of the people in our poem was there when it happened, since they can recall these visual details. There is no further information about what happened after; only stillness. Have I misunderstood? Perhaps it is just about a man swimming, but the title signals something more important. Something momentous happened here, and then life went on for the narrator and his companion.
A man who came to a workshop of mine once said that he thought the title and last line of a poem work like ‘the two ends of a swimming pool – any movement or current in the pool travels from one end to the other, then bounces back through it to the beginning making little waves.’ It’s a great explanation. The title launches you into the poem but when you arrive at the last line, it often sends you back to the title, which now has some extra meaning. I can’t say it often enough – the title is a part of the poem, and must be active within it. It isn’t just an aid to filing.
The title is Pulse. At first I thought it was going to be about the rhythms of life; the ash tree, fornication, the seasons. By the end, I surmised it was about the stopping of someone’s heart. It’s still about the ash tree, fornication and the seasons, but a man’s life has also been placed within that system of natural rhythms. Like the others, he was just passing through. The place and the poem is no less peaceful for it.
[This poem appears by kind permission of the author. It appears in The Camphill Wren, published by Red Squirrel Press. If you’re enjoying these blogs and want to show your appreciation, you can make a donation of any size by clicking here. Thank you.]