Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

A critique for angst fans

On Jo Preston's poetry blog, A Dark, Feathered Art recently, I had a difference of opinion with a poster who said she couldn't be doing with criticism that focused on the technical stuff about poetry, rather than its inspirational, emotional side. And now I think maybe I can demonstrate why I do want criticism to do just that – because, paradoxically, I am currently quite emotionally overwhelmed by a particular poem. It's one heavy with nostalgia and loss, freighted with unreachable back-story, that leaves you - well, me - with that weight-pressing-on-lungs feeling of utter sadness and emptiness, plus a strong desire to read it again immediately and get the fix repeated, that one only gets from a really good angst-fest. Like the end of HDM, though for my money the angst there isn't fully earned, or the end of Renault's The Persian Boy, where it is. Or many an angsty fic I can think of.

Many poems do it too; one that's been giving me the angst fix for years is a French poem by Francis Jammes called "Clara d'Ellébeuse", which I might write about later. And I don't need commentary to tell me what the poet is doing; I know. What I want to come at is how he does it. As a writer, obviously I want to know his techniques so that I can pinch them but I would think non-writing readers too would be interested in exactly how someone is managing to mess with the inside of their head.

So, behind the cut, my thoughts on a poem in the latest issue of the journal Agenda, "Penllain" by Paul Henry.


In the first place, context comes into it. This may be a free-standing poem but some of the characters in it have surfaced before in his work. In a poem called "The Visitors", which appeared in his collection The Milk Thief (Seren 1998), and which can be read on his website, he had evoked the names of women from his childhood and youth:

The women of my earliest years
fill this room's empty bay
without warning -

Brown Helen,
Catrin Sands, Gwyneth Blue,
Nightingale Ann...


In "Penllain" some of these names and nicknames recur, and of course to anyone who has read the earlier work they are at once freighted; the reader, hearing the echo of the earlier poem, is as close as he/she can get to the poet, hearing the memories echo in his head. If the names were evocative in the first poem, they are doubly so now, for being in our past as well as his.

"Penllain" is a house name; the poem begins

"In love with an absence
I have wasted my days
believing in this house.

Your limpet ghost clings
to the walls of its rock.
Each night another wave

breaks over you, but you cling
like Gwyneth Blue's painting
and this dust is yours

this sofa where a girl
hugged her knees
and sucked her bony thumb."

The back-story of this house and these people is tantalisingly unfilled-in, part of the poem's power, for it has far more emotional pull that way, and readers will tend to fill in the missing bits of the picture with the details of their own past that stand in this place for them. But the imagery suggests strongly that it was a house near the sea, and it goes on doing so in the next lines:

"Here's where Geta sat,
her old age making profound
the simplest act.

This room's her rockpool still."

He remembers her darting about the room, "her element", where she now is no longer, at home with its objects, and this leads to what for me is the poem's first real emotional climax:

"Where did she flit to then,
her shadow? To what switch,
handle, fabric, utensil?

Ah, she was only pouring tea.
Does china rattle under water?
Does time dart or shuffle?"

In creative writing classes you sometimes hear tutors advise against questions in poems, which can lead the reader either to supply flippant answers or to get irritated and suggest the poet supply the answers. But one place they do seem to work is in poems of loss and nostalgia like this – "Clara d'Ellébeuse" is full of unanswered questions, too. "Does china rattle under water?" has something of the pathos of Dr Johnson's deathbed musing that he would receive no letters in the grave; it also marks a sudden change in the imagery, for the sea is no longer just the house's physical neighbour; it has become emblematic for the distance of loss and death. The passage of time has always been a big theme for Henry, and here as elsewhere he invests it with a powerful sense of loss.

In the next lines, where he names the girl,

"I'll tilt the blinds
so the sun slides off you.
Forgive me, I have to

get the angle, so you are
always Brown Helen"

it is as much as anything the rhythm and line breaks that create the emotion. The short lines are part of it; there is a sense of less being said than is thought and felt, of a man so much in the grip of his feelings that he can't speak at length. It's something to do too with the echoing near-rhyme of "off you" and "have to", and the balance of that line "Forgive me, I have to" with its two three-syllable phrases, rhythmically a perfect match, either side of that heavy caesura. The line break too bears down heavily on the phrase "I have to", before you know precisely what it is he has to do. The slightly apologetic, conversational tone of "forgive me" is oddly moving, addressed to someone who isn't there except in memory, and it too will recur; from now on he is pretty much talking to the absent girl. And there's a hint of obsession in "I have to/ get the angle", an obsession that again is doomed by being unable to be fulfilled except in memory or imagination.

The tilting of the blinds lets in more memories, and the start of a strange dialogue:

"what the sun says to Penllain,
what Penllain replies –

Geta? Is that you?
Gwyneth Blue?

Let me read you
'The Song of Solomon'
from Enoch's bible
"

If we take this literally, the sun just let in through the blind and the old house are having this conversation between them, though it isn't clear who speaks when. At any rate, the words of the Bible, left in the house, are spoken: it is a Welsh bible and a footnote gives the translation: "I opened for my lover but my lover had left; he was gone".

"'Agorais I'm hanwylyd,
ond fy anwylyd a giliasai,
ac a aethai ymaith'
"

It's possible that this passage carries an emotional charge for Welsh readers that it wouldn't for others, since, whether or not they actually understand the words without the footnote, it represents for them a language that was once far more widely understood, read and listened to than it is today, and hence is part of the speaker's nostalgia for things lost. But I would guess it probably resonates beyond that readership. It leads on to one of the poem's most devastating lines:

"The stopped clock translates"

– four words with such a multiplicity of resonances one hardly knows where to start. I do love it when a writer remembers, and reminds us, that not all communication is about speech – also when he doesn't answer all the questions he raises but lets the reader become a co-creator. What is it exactly that is "translated" by the stopped clock, the ironic emblem of time passing, of a time that was and cannot recur? On one level, clearly the words which may or may not carry meaning to a reader; if he's addressing those to whom they do not, he is telling them that all the "meaning" they need lies in the fact that these words would once have needed no footnote. But he surely didn't choose that particular quote by accident, and its English meaning, the loss of the lover, is also being "translated" by the stopped clock.

Other artefacts left or abandoned in the old house now begin to swim into view - the seashore imagery is taking over more and more, as if the house and its memories are "drowning" in the way he will soon describe his own state:

"Whose footprints are these
on the sandy floor's mosaic?
They raced through my castle
without disturbing a grain.

Your designer table's
window on a wooden frame
is moored where the piano was.

I am trying to play it now
while drowning in glass."

The image of a man trying to play an absent piano while "drowning" in his own reflection, in a mirror that shouldn't be there, would be a powerful enough place for most poets to end - and how delicately the was/glass near-rhyme works to create that mirror in sound - but he still has a couple of turns for the angst screw:

"Dear Brown Helen;
I have wasted my days
believing in a house!

Don't laugh. Oh go on then.
How nonchalantly
your ghost haunts me."

The words "Don't laugh. Oh go on then" have the same feel as the earlier "Forgive me" - conversational, apologetic, slightly sheepish - and of course the two preceding lines essentially repeat, with a slight variant, the opening lines of the poem. From now on, in fact, the poem is going to be pretty much a fugue, picking up notes and phrases of verbal music seeded beforehand – Henry is a musician and it always shows in his poems. And this repetition, like the reprise of the women's names from an earlier poem, itself both echoes the theme and allows us, outside his personal experience, to share some of it: these lines, at least, are already part of our shared past:

"Who were we?
Come back to this sofa
and hug your knees

and suck your bony thumb
and read me
'The Song of Solomon'.

I'll tilt the blinds
so the sun shines off you."

I don't know if the "who were we?" is a conscious echo of Kim's constant question "who is Kim?". Maybe not, though it brought that back to me; the question is so universal and indeed also echoes through "Clara d'Ellébeuse". But all the repetition in the world cannot actually bring the past back or make it happen again; in the end he must admit that whoever "we" once were, he is no longer who he was then:

I am a man
come back to this house.

Come back my limpet ghost.

And that last echo on "come back", with its careful ambiguity - is the second "come back" a repetition referring to the speaker, a plea to the absent girl, or both? - is where he does choose to end it, by which time I am, emotionally speaking, as a wet dishrag...

But I do like knowing why.
Tags: paul henry, poetry, ways of working
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