Bioluminescent Baby, Fiona Benson (Guillemot Press, 2021) Peripheral Visions, Moyra Tourlamain (Oystercatcher Press, 2021) A Time of Eels, Carol Watts (Oystercatcher Press, 2021)
Reviewed by Ian Brinton
Integral to our imagination
In the eleventh section of Carol Watts’s new poem we are presented with a suggestion as to the roots of poetic art ‘rebinding speech from / dark-winding truths’. The italicised phrase is from Douglas Oliver’s In the Cave of Suicession (Reality Studios, 1974). Set in Suicide Cave, an abandoned lead mine in Derbyshire’s Peak District in which the poet slept for many nights over a period of months, Oliver’s sequence of poetry and prose was reproduced exactly as he had typed it in the dark. The mistypings, the typos, acted to subvert a razor-sharp narrative to create a working contrast between surfaces and their durability. When Oliver sent a copy of the manuscript to his friend, the poet and publisher Andrew Crozier, he referred to it as a ‘conscious effort to pattern the very experience that goes into the poem and yet to be utterly dependent upon the capricious incidents and details of language, setting etc., for the overall result to be, as it were found, in their amalgamation.’ In Douglas Oliver’s cave there is ‘a cone of light behind your eyes…vivifying what lies forward past walls that glitter in dark-winding.’
As I read these three remarkable sequences of poetry lying on my desk I am reminded of David Lowenthal’s close study of the importance of the past:
The past is everywhere. All around us lie features which, like ourselves and our thoughts, have more or less recognizable antecedents. Relics, histories, memories suffuse human experience.
(The Past is a Foreign Country, 1985)
Fiona Benson, Moyra Tourlamain and Carol Watts all recognise that although the past and the future are alike inaccessible and beyond physical reach, they are integral to our imaginations.
The author’s note at the end of Peripheral Visions tells us that the three long sequences in the book revolve around the idea of what happens to time, language and memory ‘when an altered mind takes – or loses – control.’ The first sequence, ‘Seven Peripheral Visions’, is bound together by a sense of words forming a river of thought. There is an attempt to ‘hook back / down biography’s swan throat / the savour of corroborative event.’ Tourlamain holds on to that which is in constant flow, something which possesses a shared sense of value with her partner who is suffering from dementia. The inexorable movement of disease is becoming increasingly the drift wood remains of the writer, the poet who rebinds truths.
As that liquid movement of time marches inexorably on ‘signifiers stumble on dead memory dunes’ and the flow of language, that which attempts to keep our shared thoughts moving one between the other, becomes a lost sentence, which becomes ‘exile to alien inter-cranial space’. Within the prison-like confines of memory’s loss ‘mis-assembled memories march past’ much as they must have appeared to do to Andras Tamas whose fifty-three years in the psychiatric institute in Kotelnich made him Europe’s last remaining second world war prisoner of war. When a journalist from The Guardian visited the institute in August 2000 she found that there was nothing in the clean but bare hospital ward to suggest that this had been the man’s home since 1947:
He has spent his life in a psychiatric institute in the depths of rural Russia, unclaimed for more than half a century and with no way of communicating with the people around him.
For that Hungarian soldier, a little similar to the subject of Moyra Tourlamain’s deeply moving account of the effects of dementia, the march of memory must have moved on ‘without a glance / at you folded like a brain inside the letters of your name.’ Words like photographs are static but they can prompt movement in the minds of those who read them and that movement is a shared one as the poet sees the pictures ‘floating / now there we are as we were and ever shall be.’
The subtle movement of wit in this line is emblematic of the whole thrust of Tourlamain’s poem and in its shift of tone and voice it assembles different aspects of the way one is confronted by a collapse of the world of shared memory. The first four words of that second line might belong to the nurse who presents the patient with food or drink whereas the next three recall a haunting sense of a past gone, which could be mistaken for a quotation from Vergil by Thomas Hardy prefacing poems addressed to Hardy’s dead wife, ‘Veteris vestigia flammae’. The final four words belong to the Benedictus and point forward with an unquenchable hope. Tourlamain’s awareness of how words relate to each other in shifting contexts is then presented to us as a picture of what is both within the frame and yet outside of it:
It’s lying low, the sun
shooting horizontal rays from just behind the hill through ranks
of trees stamped on the sky
peeling at the edges
of peripheral vision.
Wires snap singly
curling back in spirals on themselves maybe
one or two a second not
all at once but just enough to craze the footage
spooling past the eyelight (p. 6-7)
The peripheria surrounds us and the diseased process of memory-loss is recognised as a movement from outwards to within as the edges of the photograph begin to peel at the edges. The wires that hold a structure firmly in place ‘snap singly’ as the pun on a quick photographic recollection, a snap taken, becomes laden with an irreversible sound of separation. It doesn’t happen all at once but just ‘one or two a second’ and yet the effect is ‘to craze the footage / spooling beyond the eyelight.’ The separation between Then and Now leads the mind to veer between the echoes of what is being lost and the warmth of remembered fragments. A merging of sounds, part of memory’s peeling back from the peripheria, causes a moment of historical recollection: Carcassonne and a medieval world of troubadours shifts into a rhyming echo of ‘The Sound of Music’: ‘these are a few of our favourite kings’.
The language-games being played here pluck an echoing string as we recall the opening of the whole sequence when Yeats’s highly-anthologised ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ had become merged with what lies ‘just outside the corner / of my mind’ and nine bean-rows were transformed into ‘Nine curled bee carcases’. The river referred to by Heraclitus winds inexorably forward and unanchored memories are left floating in the movement of the drift:
Drift words unhinged flopdowns homeless drop outs
turning the insides out of the moment
drawing a hard line
round hoarded hurts… (p.12)
The individual sections of poetry that go to make up A Time of Eels were written during Covid lockdown and, as Carol Watts explains at the end of her sequence, they arose from a merging of dialogue and forgetting: fragments of Douglas Oliver’s In the Cave of Suicession, memories of the New Zealand Waiomio glow worm caves and their resident longfin eel, and Anish Kapoor’s ‘Marsyas’, the sculpture that was installed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in 2002. The dark isolation of the Covid months appears as a human form of Oliver’s ‘Cave’ and the ‘urging of small voices’ beckons the reader to recognise ‘how dark and singular’ are ‘these damp walls’. Like a contemporary Ariadne the poet weaves ‘long threads’ and ‘spun cadences’ to explore the windings of the labyrinth herself:
oh it is dark
how dark and late
outside this stupid stupid stupid
I wonder how answers arrive
on oracular hooks
how patience creeps
secretarial in the dark
eyes adjust to vanishing
warmth a cold dank
art of registry relinquishing
In his 1983 novel Waterland Graham Swift had introduced a chapter ‘About the Eel’ in which he examined different versions of the ‘still obscure life cycle of this snake-like, fish-like, highly edible, not to say phallically suggestive creature.’ Swift looked carefully at what might drive the eel to travel such enormous distances to both seek freedom and to return to its source:
For whether or not the silver-coated Anguilla Anguilla ever reaches the Sargasso, whether it performs its nuptial rites there or before, none the less it is true that, just as the young eel is driven not only by marine currents but by an instinctual mechanism more mysterious, more impenetrable perhaps than the composition of the atom, to make for some particular watery dwelling thousands of miles from its place of birth, so the adult eel, moved by a force which outweighs vast distances and the crushing pressure of the ocean, is compelled to take again to the sea and, before it dies and leaves the world to its spawn, to return whence it came.
In the time of Covid, Carol Watts’s A Time of Eels reflects upon what it might mean to leave the Cave, or indeed to even enter it. This is a deeply moving sequence of poems and as she has written ‘there is something marvellous in the eel’s metamorphosis and decision, sometimes over decades, to finally make a move to the sea.’ In a world of wondering what may lie beyond the darkness of confinement she offers ‘compassion gleam’:
where the oracle forgets herself
in tongue-shaped light
all bearings gone but love’s obliquity
finding a way to the sea (13)
An urgency to see what lies beyond the particularity of the moment threads its way through the pages of Fiona Benson’s remarkably attractive publication from Guillemot Press. Douglas Oliver’s focus upon the conscious effort to pattern the experience of vision which becomes central to the poem’s existence on the page can be felt throughout the sixty pages of Bioluminescent Baby and the four woodcuts by Anupa Gardner contained within the volume enhance the sense of mystery as light and darkness play against each other on the page.
In ‘Synchronous Fireflies’ the poet’s enquiring gaze upon a scene from which she comes to feel excluded emphasises the distance between individual perception and the surrounding world. Photinus carolinus, a species of firefly, presents a mating display of synchronous flashing which offers succeeding waves of alternating bright light and darkness which seem to travel across the landscape. The opening statement of Benson’s poem is in the past tense as she ‘thought we’d be wreathed and gauzed, immersed, involved’ and there is a dawning realisation of exclusion as her eye focuses upon what becomes in effect a type of theatrical performance:
there was more of a distance, a fourth wall,
as the fireflies displayed at the far side of the world
in a complicated language I couldn’t understand
and wasn’t meant for me, and I felt selfish and estranged
The seeking for the display of the fireflies left the poet’s own companion behind and the tone of the poem offers a convincing imitation of a metaphysical understanding of the nature of distance. Echoing the world of John Donne the spell of darkness falling becomes
like the lull
between two lovers in a drawn bedroom –
not their speaking, but the quality of their attention;
a thronged darkness into which you might send
any thought, and find it cupped and held.
The poet tells us that she came for the light but in fact it was the dark ‘that kept me safe’ and I am reminded of the Cave in Carol Watts’s poem in which ‘everything’ is ‘half-there’ acting as a ‘refuge’.
One of the long poems contained within Benson’s collection is ‘Notes Towards an Understanding of Butterfly Wings’ and the nine sections examine with a surgical exactness the movement from the world of the past to an understanding of the present. The opening of this poem offers us a reminiscence of childhood’s endless summer, a world in which
We darted through its long
and iridescent meadow
like little fish.
The Eden-like sense of the individual merging with the natural environment pushes the poet forward to ask in the last line of the first section ‘Did we fly?’ The simplicity of the question haunts the whole volume of Bioluminescent Baby and the second section of ‘Field Crickets’ (Gryllus campestris) explores that metaphysical quality of the relationship between the seer and the seen:
My single self sickens, understanding itself
as slave to DNA – all the blood-flesh agonies of love
to end as a husk on your knees as I’m now on my knees –
something about how the crickets contract in death, and the heat,
and my own lack of volition, desire and its plenitude,
how I sleep foetally like the dead crickets, their legs drawn in
as if invisibly trussed, and the twirling aerials of the young
testing the limits of their boxes, and all of us in tenements,
in limits, oblivious and captive, all of us messengers
The sections of ‘Notes Towards an Understanding of Butterfly Wings’ present us with anatomized truths which reveal the complex realities of the natural world and what we had thought to be ‘dead, external’ was in fact ‘sensate’. The poet becomes
able to interpret thermals,
a network of trachea and splayed nerves
that feeling, breathes.
Fiona Benson’s metaphysical conclusion is to realise ‘how the soul, skinned, might feel’ and I am drawn back yet again to the Ovidian story of Marsyas as resurrected in the Caves of Carol Watts’s meditation:
a question of breath where
flutes gasp at the lip
neither head nor body
as if skinless retribution
rebinding speech from
muted at the bell
that brought us
to this mouth (11)
There is a haunting sadness throughout these three publications, a moving awareness of the relationship between the self and the other and one of my final recollections is of the fifth poem in A Time of Eels which concludes with the ‘refuge’
as if dusk
has already given way
winding its horn
I am left here with an echo of the conclusion to the Dantesque scene in Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, a disfigured street in which ‘He left me, with a kind of valediction, / And faded on the blowing of the horn.’ That mournful sense of isolation and loss, emphasised perhaps also by a recollection of Alfred de Vigny’s 1825 poem in which ‘le son du Cor est triste au fond des bois!’, reveals perhaps what Doulas Oliver had been referring to nearly fifty years ago as he attempted to bring to life ‘what lies forward past walls that glitter in dark-winding.’