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Jane Duran: Slow Crossings

In 2010 Long Poem Magazine published my poem Panama Canal. The poem formed part of my sequence Graceline which Enitharmon brought out that same year. When I was 11 years old, my family moved to Chile. We travelled to Valparaíso from New York on the Santa Barbara, a cargo ship  – one of the Grace Line fleet – which also carried some passengers. Leaving the Atlantic Ocean behind and my life in New York City with it, our ship passed slowly through the Panama Canal before making its way down the long Pacific coast of South America.    

I wanted to evoke my memories of the Panama Canal, but I was also drawn into its history and the terrifying and brutal circumstances of those who struggled to build it. The harrowing eye-witness accounts and photographs in Matthew Parker’s brilliantly documented book Panama Fever helped me to imagine both the scale, and the human cost and anguish of this vast and ambitious project. My poem evolved not to narrate, but to suggest moments of this reality. It began with my own experience of the orderly, functioning waterway linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. My own childish experience of the Canal was one of marvelling, but my life was in transition as we travelled along that narrow channel, past dense jungle in the sweltering humidity, on our way to a new home in a strange country. Some quality of that intense awareness I think moved the poem forward before it opened out to explore the creation of the Canal: ‘On deck my sister holds her hands out – / the butterflies travel against us // or round us, blue and haphazard, / a mild resistance. / The locks open for us, along the banks // gauzy smalltown-America streets pursue us, / and a jungle passes through our ship.’

My poem began with an epigraph from Antonio Machado: ‘En mi soledad / he visto cosas muy claras, / que no son verdad’ which translated reads ‘In my solitude / I have seen things very clearly / that are not true.’ I felt that this quote was apposite – the beautiful Canal with its smoothly operating locks that I had experienced as wonderment and joy as a child was actually built on sorrow and exploitation.  Only the first two sections of the poem were about my own memories, the remaining five sections were all about the creation of the Canal. The poem ends: ‘And the sliding energy / of the clay when rainwater // penetrated so the clay / all but flew off the rock // burying men, shovel and pickaxe. / This is how it was: // the hill wanted to run back / into the canal-pit and replace // what was taken away,/ and the human wanted to join up // the two oceans with weeping / and wailing.’

In some of my other sequences which touch on history, there has been a similar process. The initial inspiration comes from a kind of recognition, or feeling of close, emotional connection; I sense the breadth of possibilities in it. Then this is informed, enriched, deepened through research and discovery.  An overarching idea or theme or paradox may emerge after I have been working on the poems for some time: this then becomes a motif that runs through the poems, a way of approaching and even ordering the poems. In my book-length sequence Silences from the Spanish Civil War, it was my father’s silence about his experience of fighting in the Republican Army that first inspired the poems. The idea of silence then began to permeate the poems. I was conscious of using suggestion,  pared-down language and blank space to convey feeling. An example of this is my short poem Paterna, 1939-42, about executions carried out by Francoists after the Spanish Civil War was over: ‘I am used to this now. / You can hear the shots as far away / as Burjasot. They are always taken / to the same white wall. // We are all listening / in my fatherless house.’

Once I am on this trajectory and can begin to create a sequence, or a long poem made up of sections as in Panama Canal, the subject, the questions it raises, the images it suggests can absorb and preoccupy me for months or years. New poems, or just images or phrases, may occur to me at any time. If I’m travelling, or at night, I always keep a notebook and pen by me so I can jot down thoughts, odd phrases quickly, before they vanish. When I re-read these jottings later they may seem pallid and uninteresting. But I know I’m onto something if some of the words or images startle me, if there are strange and revealing juxtapositions, if I discover an interesting and emotive idea embedded in lines that on the surface seem to be nonsensical.

For instance in my recent book the clarity of distant things there is a sequence called miniatures of al-Andalus, about Islamic Iberia.  Towards the end of the sequence, my poem among the clarities evokes the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews following the Christian reconquest. The poem begins: ‘what happens to perception / when the night / reclaims what is scattered ? // even church bells can throw stones / and the early morning wind/ goad you // I dig my fingers into the rind / of an orange / but the fruit is powdery’. These images came from those random jottings written at different times, yet they are all about exile and loss, they seem to have a common emotional source. That word ‘goad’, where did it come from?  But it’s the right word. I think such words and images naturally surface from a continuous immersion, receptiveness and freedom when you are working on a sequence or poem. I wait patiently for these surprises.

I love writing long poems and sequences: the panoramas they offer; the way the poems interact with or elaborate on each other; the way a long stretch of time, a season, a year, even centuries can be evoked through a succession of explored moments and images; the pattern of threads that cross and hold together the final weaving.      

You can read part of Graceline here:http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk/issues/issue-four/from-graceline/

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