Tag Archives: poet

‘Minority’ by Imtiaz Dharker

I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.

All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.

I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;

like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.

There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.

And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,

until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

This is another wonderful poem by Imtiaz Dharker. I think Dharker is one of the most exciting poets writing in English today; her work is so fresh and relevant, and I love the way she doesn’t shy away from subject matter that is politically taboo. I particularly love the way she explores identity in her poems.

Minority gives a very insightful depiction of what it feels like to be “foreign” in many places. The poem begins with the line, “I was born a foreigner”. How can you be born a foreigner? Well, sadly today in many of our Western societies (including in the UK and in my adopted country, France) the children of immigrants can be made to feel this way. The poem says, “I was born a foreigner… and “carried on from there/ to become a foreigner everywhere/ I went”. The speaker in the poem seems to belong nowhere – “even in the place/ planted with my relatives”. On returning to the country of her parents, this speaker feels like a foreigner, too. In this situation, many people understandably feel incredibly displaced and victimised, as they find themselves facing prejudice from both the country they were born in, as well as the country of their parents and relatives.

The speaker tells us “I don’t fit”. She compares herself to “food cooked in milk of coconut/ where you expected ghee or cream” or an “unexpected aftertaste/ of cardamom or neem”. I love this use of taste to describe a feeling of being foreign; it’s so evocative. A country’s cuisine is essential to its culture and so I think this is a very clever inclusion here. I also find it very interesting that Dharker imports flavours from her own very multicultural identities, which are (as well as British) Pakistani and Indian.

The subject of the next stanza if language, and this is something that I can relate to personally, having lived, studied and worked in abroad for several years now. The speaker talks about “that point where/ the language flips/ into an unfamiliar taste”, and words become a “tripwire”. Is she talking about accent here, where the language might “taste” differently on the tongue? Or is she talking about being unable to find the words for something? I have heard many people say this about being bilingual; it is incredibly frustrating when you cannot think of a word in the language you are trying to speak, because you are afraid that you might be better at one language than another. This only adds to the feeling of not-belonging that runs all the way through this poem.

The penultimate stanza explores the act of writing, and its role in the creation of identity. Dharker uses beautiful language to describe herself (or the speaker) going “scratch, scratch” at the “growing scab on black and white”. I just love this description of writing as a “scab”. She is writing to make sense of a wound, or even to heal it. Dharker encourages the notion of the transformative and healing power of literature here, and then she remarks upon its democracy. “Everyone has the right/ to infiltrate a piece of paper”, she writes; the page is not prejudiced; it “doesn’t fight back”. Poetry becomes a medium through which the speaker can freely express herself — a way she can communicate. And perhaps the message will get through to people; literature is a great teacher of empathy. “Who knows”, writes Dharker, perhaps these lines will “scratch their way/ into your head” — break through the prejudices that “community” and “family” can breed.

Perhaps one day, she writes in the final verse, you (the reader) will meet “the stranger sidling down your street” and recognise that face “as your own”. I just love the way the poem suddenly turns on the reader, near the end, with that very direct “you”. Dharker is putting the reader on the spot; these questions are now directly put to us. This poem beautifully displays its author’s belief in the power of literature to transform, educate and create understanding, and I think it’s a wonderful piece.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This sonnet is a typically Keatsian feast of glorious sounds and luxurious rhymes. It is based upon Keats’ first experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and explores notions of the power of literature and the imagination. The poet tells us that Chapman’s work has inspired him to write; he intimates that he had never created “pure” poetry until “bold” Chapman encouraged him to “speak out”. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is a tribute to Homer, to literature, and also, I think, to the genius of the poetic mind.

From the opening line of the poem you might notice a connection to many of Keats’ early sonnets. It begins with a beautiful, mysterious, alluring statement, akin in tone to “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and “The poetry of earth is never dead.” As with so much of Keats’ work, the sheer music of his words is enough to entice and delight.

The speaker begins by equating the act of reading with travelling. This metaphor extols the glory of the imagination, the “realms of gold”, where the narrator has journeyed, symbolising the great literary works of man. Keats had a great fascination for the imagination; in fact, he once wrote that he was “certain of nothing” but the “truth” of the imagination. The sonnet depicts the travels of Odysseus around the “goodly states”, “kingdoms” and “islands”, which are described in Homer, and which Keats, through reading Chapman’s translation, has experienced himself. Keats often alludes to his belief in the potency of literature, and does so notably in his other sonnet ‘Keen, fitful gusts’. In that poem, he remembers the great works of Milton and Petrarch as he confronts the harshly critical literary world. These memories inspire him, and give him confidence, ensuring that he feels “little” of the “bleak air”.

For me, the fact that Keats mentions so many great names from the distant past in this poem (Apollo, Homer and Cortez) highlights his burning ambition for recognition as a poet, and his concern for the writer’s role in society. He often refers to great poets of the past such as Milton and Shakespeare, as well as to fellow Romantic artists like Wordsworth and Haydon. I feel like he was continuously comparing himself to the masters, reminding himself of that which he dreams of achieving. The reference to Apollo here prefigures the more important role that the god of poetry will play in Keats’ later works such as Hyperion.

Within the octet there is an unmistakable impression of restlessness. The speaker is seemingly wandering from book to book, with no purpose or direction in mind. I think this reflects Keats’ early difficulties in finding poetic confidence. He speaks of how he had oft “been told” of “deep-brow’d Homer”. Perhaps Keats is acknowledging a feeling of inadequacy here — of being dwarfed by such a literary giant as Homer (often venerated as the first poet). This is consistent with much of Keats’ early verse, where there seems to be evidence of self-doubt and self-consciousness with regard to his credibility as a poet. For example, returning to ‘Keen, fitful gusts’, he acknowledges his youth and inexperience as he admits “I have many miles on foot to fare”. Likewise, in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer he infers that he had never created anything of beauty until he was inspired by this translation of Homer; (“never did I breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak”.) It is as though Keats had felt like an intruder in the closeted world of literature — that poetry was strictly the “demesne” of Homer and such. But Chapman encourages Keats, urging him to speak out “loud and bold”.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

Another thing that I find really interesting in this poem is that it seems to show Keats’ ambition. It is hard to read it and not derive from it some notion of the immense task that Keats seems to have set himself. This is something that I have noticed in quite a lot of Keats’ work (perhaps it is most obvious in the piece ‘When I have fears’). Keats’ endeavours to perfect ancient and difficult poetic structures such as the ode and sonnet also seem to support this idea of ambition; he mentions it himself in a letter to Hessey, which he wrote while writing ‘Endymion’. He writes that through attempting to master these challenging forms he had “ leaped headlong into the Sea” of poetry, and so become “better acquainted” with it than if he had “stayed upon the green shore” and taken “tea and comfortable advice.” Keats was uncompromising; he refused to take heed of the criticism of anyone but himself. And I think it’s a very good thing that he didn’t!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Ariel’ by Sylvia Plath

Stasis in darkness.
Then the substanceless blue
Pour of tor and distances.

God’s lioness,
How one we grow,
Pivot of heels and knees!—The furrow

Splits and passes, sister to
The brown arc
Of the neck I cannot catch,

Nigger-eye
Berries cast dark
Hooks—Black sweet blood mouthfuls,Shadows.
Something else
Hauls me through air—Thighs, hair;
Flakes from my heels.
WhiteGodiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
And now IFoam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child’s cry
Melts in the wall.And I
Am the arrow,
The dew that fliesSuicidal,
at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.

Ariel is the poem that gives its name to Sylvia Plath’s most celebrated collection, which was published in 1965. It was published posthumously, two years after Plath committed suicide. The fact that Plath chose ‘Ariel’ as the title for the collection is to me very important; I think that in a sense it can be read to define the episode of incredible creative outpouring that was the few years before she died (this was when she wrote DaddyLady Lazarus, Fever 103 and other seminal works).I feel that this poem is about the creative process, and specifically the process of writing poetry. It is very enigmatic, spiritual, and almost erotic in places — we find very physical descriptions. ‘Ariel’ is a name that we probably most associate with the spirit character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who is servant to the magician Prospero. This definitely adds to the mystical and magical quality that surrounds the notion of the Muse, or creative process, in the poem. However, Ariel was also the name of the horse Plath used to ride when she was living in Devon. The poem describes a woman riding a horse.Set at dawn, the poem begins with “Stasis in darkness”. I love this opening line; it is soft-footed, like the quiet before a storm. There is anticipation; the rider is still in the dark of the stable. But then she is suddenly out, and riding. She becomes “God’s lioness”. I love the lioness; it is such a strong, but determinedly feminine image. The rider is on an almost divine mission here; she is strong, and provocative (this part reminds me of that final, devastating line in Lady Lazarus: “And I eat men like air”.)As you rush through these swift stanzas (that create a breathless effect, when read aloud) you can almost feel the wind rushing past you, with the “Pivot of heels and knees”. “How one we grow”, writes Plath; she is one with her horse, one with Ariel, and one with her creative process or Muse. There is an interesting duality here; although Plath describes herself as “one” with the horse, Ariel also has a “neck I cannot catch”. This is fascinating to me because it perfectly captures the nature of the creative process, which is so very hard to pin down or define. When she is riding (or writing) she feels in complete harmony with this force, and yet it remains somehow elusive and mysterious. This mystery persists as Plath writes, “Something else/ Hauls me through air”. What is this force?This poem (and much of Plath’s other work) contains many physical images. In this wonderful, exhilarating metaphor for the act of writing a poem, the whole body is involved: “heels and knees”, “sweet blood mouthfulls”, “thighs, hair” etc.  I think that it is perhaps because she wrote such personal or ‘confessional’ poetry – using her own emotional experiences as subject matter – that Plath makes this poem so physical; she puts her whole being into the writing of a poem. She puts her real experiences in there. Perhaps that is why she describes herself as being physically hauled through the air, here; “I unpeel”, she writes. (I also personally think that there is always an element of wanting to shock, with Plath. Being a woman, it is somehow more shocking for her to use personal, physical images, and she uses this to provoke and get our attention. In a similar way, she included many Holocaust images in her other poems.)A part of this poem that particularly moves me is where Plath writes, “A child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” In the final year of her life, when Plath was writing many of the poems for Ariel, her children were still very small. She used to get up before dawn every day to write. I am sure this is why the poem is set at dawn, though dawn is also a beautifully symbolic moment of the day; it is a non-time, a time when everybody else is asleep. It is like how time seems to stop while a poem is written, and can then resume once it is done. I love to picture Plath writing in the early morning, the thunder of Ariel’s hooves in her head — such a powerful time of creativity. Real life — the “child’s cry” — attempts briefly to enter the poem, but cannot distract the poet from her craft. She thunders on, “Suicidal, at one with the drive/ Into the red/ Eye, the cauldron of morning.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘L’Albatros’ by Charles Baudelaire

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

English translation, by William Aggeler 

Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.

Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.

That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!

The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

Well, I was all ready to translate this, but when I googled the poem I found tons of different translations of it. I couldn’t help reading through them, and thought that this one was the best. I knew that I couldn’t do my own translation after reading it, because I would have wanted to plagiarise it too much!

I love this poem. I read it first at school; Baudelaire was among the first French poets I read. It is from his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) which was first published in 1857.

L’albatros uses a very similar image to yestedray’s poem by Rilke. This beautiful bird, the albatross, represents the poet; Baudelaire makes this quite clear in the final stanza. I love this image of these birds that are at once so graceful in flight — “kings of the sky” — and also so “clumsy” and “ashamed”, dragging their awkward wings when they are captured and forced to walk on deck.

For me, this is a very touching image. The poet is “prince of cloud and sky” when he is in his element — when he is writing. But, in other situations (perhaps social or other) he is “gauche”, “comic and ugly”, and is “the butt of hoots and jeers”. It seems to be the poet’s genius or brilliance that, like the albatross’s oar-like wings, “prevent him for walking.” What a beautiful final line.

(This reminds me of what Keats once wrote in a letter about a poet being the “most unpoetical of any thing in existence”, because he is always inhabiting other body, such as the sun, the moon etc. The “chameleon poet”, to use Keats’ phrase, is poetical only when he is writing — when he inhabiting something poetic. In other situations, he might be like the albatross, stumbling over his beautiful wings.)

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I am so sad that my German is non-existent, apart from the odd greeting or pleasantry. I would so love to be able to read and understand this poem in its original language, but for now Bly’s superb translation will have to do.

From what I can tell, this translation is brilliant. It reads very seamlessly, and I love the attention to the sounds as well as to the accuracy of meaning — particularly in the first line, where I love the assonance of “This clumsy living that moves lumbering”. Translating a poem is not an easy task; a poem is such a complex, loaded thing. It is not like holding up a mirror, but rather creating a new poem that captures the essence of the original, losing neither meaning, implied meaning, tone nor beauty. It seems an almost impossible task.

Rilke’s poem describes the clumsiness of swans as they walk, and then compares it to when the swan “lets himself down/ into the water”, and is suddenly transformed into the embodiment of grace. Although on land swans lumber “as if in ropes” and are terribly “awkward”, on the water, a swan is one of the most graceful sights on this earth.

Rilke takes this image and uses it to suggest that Man is like the clumsy swan in life — stumbling along as if in the dark — and that in death (“which is letting go/ of the ground we stand on and cling to every day” ) Man might be like the swan on water. On water, the swan is “pleased to be carried”, and “more like a king, further and further on”. I think this is a very beautiful, inspiring and comforting image.

The Swan reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem, ‘L’albatros’ (‘The Albatross’), which uses a very similar image to evoke an idea of the nature of the artist. More on that tomorrow…

P.S. If any of you speak German, please let me know what you think of Bly’s translation. Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘To a young girl’ by W. B. Yeats

MY dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

I absolutely love this poem. It is from Yeats’ 1919 collection, The Wild Swans at Coole, which is amazing, and which contains most of my favourite of his works. I tend to prefer Yeats’ earlier work because I am more drawn to Romantic poetry than I am political poetry. I first read To a young girl when I was a teenager, and it felt to me at the time that Yeats was speaking directly to me, and that he understood me; I remember that feeling distinctly.

For me, this poem is the voice of the older, male poet to a young girl full of Romantic notions. When I was a teenager, I was more besotted with Yeats, Keats and the Bronte sisters than any of the spotty, obnoxious boys in my class! It is only for this reason, I think, that for me this poem was more about a young girl’s wild, Romantic, idealist ambitions fancying herself as a poet, rather than any romantic (with a small ‘r’) ideals of love. I love the way that this wise, worldly voice tells the young girl that he understands “What makes [her] heart beat so” — her Romantic ideas — her naivety? — and that though most adults might have forgotten how they were themselves in youth, he has never forgotten.

There was something very comforting in this poem for my teenage self, to feel that someone as erudite and successful (the absolute pinnacle of what success meant to me at the time) as Yeats could speak in this way to a young girl. It was a comfort to hear in this poem that he valued the “wild” spirit of youth and that idealism, because there is obvious disapproval of the older woman (“she broke [his] heart for her”) and “denies/ And has forgot”. There is the idea here that though youth can be naive and sometimes really cringe-worthy, it is something nevertheless precious and pure. Whenever I read over the poems I wrote as a teenager, many of them do make me cringe at my earnestness and naivety. However, I would never want to lose them and some part of me envies the girl who wrote them.

As always with Yeats, the language is exquisitely lyrical — especially those final two lines, I just love: “Set all her blood astir/ And glittered in her eyes”.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

The Unknown Citizen’ by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports of his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of the old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the war till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report of his union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day,
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows that he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High–Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A gramophone, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year;
When there was peace he was for peace; when there was war he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

This is the first poem that I have posted on request, and I would like to say that I am more than happy to take requests; I like a challenge, and I also really want to write about poems that interest you, dear readers.

The unknown citizen, when I first read its title and opening epigraph, reminded me of ‘The Tomb of the Unknown soldier’ in Paris, and the nameless graves of northern France. The sight of all those unnamed dead, remembered only in their capacity as soldiers, is of course unspeakably tragic, but I find there to be also something quite estranging there, because there are no names, no faces, no stories. Each of those men had a story that no statistic, rank or number could tell, and the same is true with The unknown citizen.

But I’m getting the tone all wrong. Auden’s poem is humorous, and satirical; it is the voice of the authorities ‘summing up’ a man’s life by statistics. It is bureaucracy gone mad. It is a tribute, by the “State” (with its ominous capital ‘S’) to an apparently satisfactory member of its population. The voice in this poem, though humorous, is also an unsettling one… almost ‘Big Brother-like” in its self-satisfied, false omniscience.

The poem starts by informing us that this unknown citizen was exemplary, in that “no official complaint” was ever made against him, that he was a “saint” for serving the “Greater Community”, being a soldier, and never getting fired from his factory job. He had sufficiently “ordinary” views as to never upset anything, “paid his dues” and occasionally socialised with his “mates” for “a drink”… like a good little consumer. The poem goes on to tell us that he read the newspaper every day, and had “normal” reactions to the advertisements”. There is a catalogue of information here, but by the end of the poem we realise that we still know nothing about this man; nothing that matters about the person has been recorded. The citizen remains “unknown” — he has been dehumanised — and this is a seriously dangerous situation being described, if you think about what was happening in Germany at the time Auden was writing this in 1939.

I think that the rhyme scheme of this poem (which you will notice is the simplest imaginable: ABAB etc.) adds to the satirical tone of the poem. Auden is very clever in the way he uses this almost sing-song rhyme scheme to add to the effect he creates. There is something trite about this rhyming voice, and over-conventional… and something sickening in its false-benevolence.

We continue to be bombarded with uninteresting information about this unknown citizen. He was “fully insured”, and conformed to buying all the modern appliances and comforts that were advertised to him. He had the “proper opinions” at the right time, and “added five children to the population”. All of this information is delivered with humour, for example, Auden writes about the five children, “our Eugenist says it was the right number for a parent of his generation”.

At the end of the poem, a question is posed: “Was he free? Was he happy?” But the questions are dismissed quickly as “absurd”, for, “Had anything been wrong, we would surely have heard.” This is a very cutting and ironic-toned ending to the poem, which so effectively evokes the idea of the sort of direction many feared society was headed in Auden’s day (just look at Orwell and Huxley’s distopian novels). Auden wrote this piece soon after he moved to New York from England (in ’39).

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The good morrow’ by John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a
dream of thee.

And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one,
and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.

This is the first poem by John Donne that I have posted on this site, and it is a beautiful and spiritual love poem. Donne lived from 1572-1631 and is probably the most famous of the metaphysical poets.

The good morrow begins with the speaker reflecting on what his life was like “before we loved” — before he loved the woman to whom this poem is addressed. The answer to this question is that his life was meaningless, before her. He may have enjoyed “country pleasures” before, but these were merely physical, and “childish”. My favourite lines in the whole poem are at the end of this first stanza: “If every any beauty I did see,/ Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a/ Dream of thee”. Any love the poet thought he felt before her — any liaisons he may have had before he met her — they were “but a/ Dream of thee”. They were not real, and only a shadow of what love can be.

Stanza two goes on to describe how this woman has become the speaker’s entire world, and the spiritual bond that they enjoy together. Their souls are “waking” — coming alive — because of this love that has opened their eyes and filled them with joy. They have no “fear”, and their “little room” becomes “an everywhere”. They may spend their time cooped in one small room together, but being together in this space means that it is more than enough. Donne goes on to write that he no longer cares about sea farers discovering new worlds (as was literally happening in Donne’s day, as the Americas and other new lands were being discovered.) The discovery of new worlds means nothing to the speaker in this poem, for he possesses his own new world: his lady.

When we arrive at the final verse, Donne writes beautifully about seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his lover, and she in his: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears”. This third stanza fascinates me because there seems to be a desire for equality with his lover, which was perhaps unusual in Donne’s era. As he states, “Whatever dies was not mixed equally”. If the two love each other in equal measure then their love will not fade; “If our two loves be one, or, thou and I/ Love so alike than none do slacken, none can die”. I adore this ending to the piece, as it describes so beautifully how the spiritual marriage of minds and hearts can create an unbreakable bond of love.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘How it is’ by Maxine Kumin

Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you’ve come to visit, he’s ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.

This poem was written about the poet Anne Sexton, after her suicide in 1974. Maxine Kumin was a contemporary and close friend of Sexton.

How it is is the first poem that I have read by Kumin, and it struck me particularly because, although it is about a poet that I admire enormously for her craft, here we see grief for a friend — for someone who had holes in her pockets, got parking tickets, and chatted over “vodka and ice in the kitchen”. This is a poem not for a literary myth or persona, but for a real person — a “Dear friend” — and it is this quality that makes it most interesting and touching for me.

The poem begins and ends with Anne Sexton’s “blue blazer”, and I think this has great significance. Kumin writes that she wears it “a month after your death”, and that it is full of memories (the holes and parking tickets mentioned above.) I think that the image of her donning this blazer could be read to represent Kumin donning the literary clothing and habits of her friend; she writes poetry to inhabit the world that Sexton did, in an attempt to retrieve something of what she has lost.

In the second stanza, Kumin imagines an attempt to ‘rewind’ time, past “the last day of your life”, to a time when her old friend was alive. She runs “the home movie back to a space/ We could be easy in”. Interestingly, this space is the kitchen, with “vodka and ice”. I love this image of  the two women chatting at a kitchen table, drinking vodka, their words “like living meat”. The conversation is their sustenance — and more than that — it is alive and exciting.

The final verse acknowledges the public reaction produced by Sexton’s act of suicide: “you have excited crowds/ with your example”. Kumin’s response to this phenomenon is fairly dismissive, though it seems to show some contempt, too. She describes these crowds as swelling “like wine bags, straining at your seams”. This image gives me the impression that Kumin is resentful of there being a form of ‘grief’ from a public who did not know the ‘real’ Anne Sexton, but that she is also nonetheless a little fearful of their changing Sexton in some way (“straining at your seams”).

Maxine Kumin tells us that she will be “years gathering up our words” — piecing together the real memories of her friendship. Perhaps it is difficult to remember the true voice of her friend, Anne, when the voice of Sexton’s poetry is so present, powerful and enduring. At the end of the poem, she puts on the “dumb blue blazer of your death”. This image is one that I find incredibly moving, firstly because there is anger here. By calling Sexton’s death “dumb”, Kumin is expressing her anger at an act that seems so incredibly futile — her suicide was “dumb” because it said nothing — all it did was silence her. And perhaps Kumin puts on the blazer because she does not want the poetry, but rather the voice of her friend. The blazer is empty — “dumb” — it cannot speak with Anne’s voice. Although Sexton lives on through her poetry, the person is gone, and it is that person who Kumin grieves in this poem.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Tay Moses’ by Kathleen Jamie

What can I fashion for you
but a woven creel of river-
rashes, a golden
oriole’s nest my gift
wrought from the Firth –

And choose my tide: either
the flow, when, watertight
you’ll drift to the uplands
my favourite hills, held safe
in eddies where salmon, wisdom
and guts withered in spawn,
rest between moves – that
slither of body as you were born –

or the ebb, when the water
will birl you to snag
on reeds, the river
pilot leaning over the side
Name o’ God!‘ and you’ll change hands:
tractor-man, grieve, farm-wife
who takes you into her
competent arms

even as I drive slamming
the car’s gears,
spitting gravel on tracks
down between berry-fields,
engine still racing, the door wide
as I run toward her, crying
LEAVE HIM! Please,
it’s okay, he’s mine.

This is a poem by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, which I listened to on The Poetry Archive today.
The poet says that she wrote The Tay Moses when she was expecting her first son, and was feeling apprehensive about the new arrival and addition to her household. I like this poem because it seems to me to be very brave in its emotional honesty; it is not acceptable in our society for women to express these sorts of feelings and I just think it was brave to publish this.

She begins the poem by imagining making a little Moses basket for her baby, from reeds from the Tay river (“wrought from the Firth”). In the poem, she puts the basket and baby in the river, choosing her “tide”, and nonetheless making sure that the basket is “water-tight”. I love the language here, with the “woven creel of river” and the “golden oriole’s nest”.

We follow the poet’s imagination as the basket with the baby drifts “to the uplands”, “held safe in eddies”… until it gets caught somewhere and is rescued by a “tractor man” and his “farm-wife”, who takes the baby in her “competent arms”. The image of this capable farmer’s wife taking the baby into her strong, motherly arms, is something that seemingly triggers the protective instinct in our mother-poet, for she is suddenly racing to get her baby back. I love the urgency of the language describing this, as she is “slamming/ the car’s gears” and “spitting gravel on tracks”. This is such efficient, evocative language and I think it’s really clever. You can hear the regret and the frantic desire to undo the situation her imagination has produced. The poem ends with the poet running to her child, crying “LEAVE HIM! Please,/ It’s ok, he’s mine.”

I love the nightmarish/dreamlike quality to this poem, and the way that letting that Moses basket float down the river is like the poet’s mind running off with her fears that she won’t be a good mother. At the end, I love how the way she races to salvage her child and her urgency to take him back from the “competent” farmer’s wife is like her mother’s instinct retrieving her fearful mind that was running away with a crazy notion. In the end, she salvages everything, undoes the nightmare she has dreamt up in a panic, and realises how much she already loves her child.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh