British and Irish Contemporary Poetry Conference

Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester. September 12th-14th 2013

Flight and Other Modes of Departure

Forms of poetry as forms of stillness: Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney & Anne-Marie Fyfe

by: Charlotte Rowland

     Stillness, escape and flight occur and re-occur profoundly in contemporary and poetic tradition. This, perhaps, is evidence of an artistically enigmatic desire to still the fleeing, or, more specifically, to use poetry and visual art, as stagnated forms, to capture the movement of everyday reality. Working intuitively to re-amalgamate the present world, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney and Anne-Marie Fyfe use poetry, as a simultaneously motionless and portable art form, to express this prolific yearning of the artist, and to play with the boundaries of poetic space by asking how language can contain and compile experience.

     Flight, a key image often used figuratively by Elizabeth Bishop to both indicate and eradicate the momentary passing of her speaker’s spatial circumstances, is most obviously referred to rhetorically in ‘Travelling in the Family’, where ‘a sigh’, confusing verbal and visual distinctions, might be ‘a bird’, or again, straightforwardly, in ‘A Cold Spring’, as ‘fireflies’ drift ‘simultaneously’ like ‘bubbles in champagne’, yet what is most alluring about her play not only with spatial dimension, but with movement as a type of perspective, is the ideas of evolution and expansion it signifies, as well as its promotion of Bishop’s belief that nothing is too small to be seen:

          For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;
          the little leaves waited,
          carefully indicating their characteristics.

     Here, microscopic natural transformations peacefully and serenely dispel the pressure of time, as the passive verbs ‘hesitated’ and ‘waited’ abstain from invisibility. The fickle assertion of the lexis does much of the poems work as it considers the idea of movement, as the demonstrative participle ‘indicating’, much like the verbs, raises a level of incompleteness in the poem that challenges how and why objects are seen. The act of seeing, itself seen in the poem, is arbitrary and without routine, as while the giving over of winter to spring is delayed, the speaker’s perspective is also affected, and they are faced with a choice to either see the ‘characteristics’ of the leaves as indicated by the leaves themselves, or imbue the leaves, as an artist and creator must, with their own ideas on what the leaves, and their reluctance to grow, might be ‘indicating’.

     Yet the dichotomy of many Bishop poems stems from the fact her speakers often fail or find it difficult to reach this state of awareness. ‘Rain Towards Morning’, building on its budding titular action, advances towards this level of consciousness, systematically deconstructing the natural world as it does so:

          No cage, no frightening birds; the rain

          is brightening now.

     Though the speaker sees what is absent before noticing the present, they manage to avoid ethereality in their thinking by focussing on the importance and brash fore-coming of the adverb ‘now’. The poem, using enjambment to blur what is seen with what is not seen, so that as absences compile, and jarr against the insistent ‘rain’, ironically creates a presence in nature for the speaker to respond to, leaving them affixed and assimilated to what is outside their own self-conduct. As ‘Conversation’, a poem of the same sequence notes, there is ‘no choice’ or ‘sense’. Only movement, and the stillness that follows a movement as small as ‘rain’, is there to be seen, if we are aware enough to see it. To flee, as Bishop’s poems, spurred by questions, ambiguities and vague memories, want to, is to be involved with a denial of the outside world by refusing to see it for what it is, or by avoiding the pressures of fast-paced change which any experience with it necessarily invites. If a renunciation of change, as the speaker refuses return for the departing ‘birds’, means no present is ever capable of being re-lived, then what the poem is suggesting, perhaps, is that poetry subverts this denial by being artificially and mimetically conjured. There is art in movement, as the speaker recognises, but there is also a different kind of art in being still. The latter, mystifying the poem, in the rhythmic lexis ‘unexpected’ and ‘unsuspected’, with a deep sense of distortion and intrusion, is something this speaker is clearly yet to learn, but as the occasion of the poem allows the verse itself to recognise, the poem, as an artefact of precision and stillness, becomes necessary to demonstrating what the speaker must strive to see.

     The proposal that minute movement, like motion in static or visual art, and the ways in which everyday shifts are obscured by a lack of awareness to them, is used time and time again in many of Bishop’s poems to ignite the speaker with a sense of spatial awareness. Likewise, modern poetry sees many accounts of this response-based intuition, with ekphrastic poems in particular tending to comment on art in a sketchy, off-hand tone:

                              There is only
          one season and just enough light to grow bluebells.

          Occasionally someone recalls the headiness
          of apple peeling and shutters are locked.

     Here, in ‘Afternoon on Central Plains Avenue’, the contemporary Irish poet Anne-Marie Fyfe summons a Bishop-like focus on location in her 2010 collection ‘Understudies’ as a way of scrutinising the speaker’s personal and immediate habitat. Yet here, the beguiling, constant questioning of Bishop is given melancholic control, as Fyfe applies her speaker to the shifts in their environment by sighting an amalgamation of noun-objects in an attempt to retain some grasp, however slippery, on the changing external setting:

          Phones go unanswered and cat-flaps are sealed.

     The scarcity of the poem’s interior, generated by the phrase ‘just enough’, and the impromptu lexical adverb ‘occasionally’ inverts the movement in the images of ‘apple peeling’ and ‘bluebells’ to near-standstill, so that the poem, for all its intensity of motion and control, has as much lease on movement as any of Bishop’s poems:

          are of the past. Cloud density eclipses the sun
                                                            moon and stars.

     As stand-alone objects, the ‘moon’ and ‘stars’ allow the poem to close on an image of light, yet the previous image of eclipse swiftly and efficiently interrupts this attempted lucidity. Here, in the poem’s final stanza, is an instant where what is happening in the poem has already been disavowed and negated by an earlier occurrence. As expected, this heightens the poem’s already intense sensitivity, and leaves the speaker’s once articulate and refined vision blurry.

     Taking the idea of movement, flight and stillness into a new realm, the poetry of Seamus Heaney can be viewed as another testament to the notion of explorative space, yet here the natural worlds of Bishop and Fyfe retreat inwards, turning to domestic interiors in hope of finding fixity and assurance:

          Now she dusts the board
          with a goose’s wing,
          now sits,

     In ‘Sunlight’, the speaker wants to be both maker and observer. The constant pull to time, referenced in the double ‘now’ of this stanza, shows the need to have things be retained in and at their moment of happening, while the decrease in action, as ‘she’ first ‘dusts’ then ‘sits’ shows both the incontrollable flux of movement, and the unlimited resource of the body to enact motion and stillness. Reconciliation, as the poem desires it, is about trying to observe something that is being created while at the same time creating something else from it. Reflecting on the body of the woman, as she attends to ‘the board’, is for the speaker a way of making art, and of experiencing the strange, voyeuristic ways of the mind art can instigate, as the poem reflects on what the speaker is doing, and, by seeing what is absent, imagines invisible, interim worlds where that absence is annulled by overlooking the laws of time.

     To interact with the outside world, and what is beyond ourselves, we can only use our bodies. The artist, working from the mind, is in this way both limited and liberated, as trapped to working only with the material his physical senses provide, he is also free to interpret and re-amalgamate that material once he has access to it. This depiction of the mind, as artist, using the body as a tool to intake the exterior world, and develop an originally mythical understanding of it, posits the body as a vessel which everyday experiences are emptied into. In Heaney’s following poem, the body is ekphrastic itself, admitting to its laborious duty to the world as it expresses a desire for another ephemeral, absent world:

          With time to kill,
          They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes
          Lazily halving each root that falls apart
          In the palm of the hand:

     Here, in ‘The Seed Cutters’, the breakdown between what the workers are doing and what the workers are thinking is given through reference to ‘time’, which spurs and drags their corporeal work, justifying the labour of their bodies. The monotony of having ‘time to kill’ is amplified by the line’s rigorous iambic pentameter, and the monosyllabic lexis that sustains itself up until the possessive verb ‘taking’ of the following line. Yet even the verb, suggestive of a new action, is incapable of breaking with the deadening, sluggishly inactive pace of the workers, as it is ascribed to time itself, implying the pessimistic idea that even the present will soon be swept into an imminent and indecipherable past.

     Time in Fyfe, seen in ‘It’s Like This’ in a ‘moment’ and ‘chill absence of sunset’, loses, as the lack of sun metaphorically demonstrates, much of its colourful ordinariness, as the poem admits that the monotony of seeing the sunset every-day is more insightful and provisionally stimulating than the harrowing ‘chill’ that comes from not seeing it at all. In a similar way, the frantic pulse of nouns pixelating ‘Dog Days on Main Street’ overfill the poem with a sense of presence, as it attempts to avoid silence by keeping the everyday in place. Yet here, as in other Fyfe poems, adjectives usurp objects, leaving ‘a telephone kiosk’ ‘vacant’, ‘shallows’ ‘clear’ and ‘Quencher wrappers’, once torn apart and held, discarded in ‘fly-clustered mesh bins’. Not only does the poem fail to see what is right in-front of it, but it also systematically and domineeringly reinvents the fact our everyday existence also likewise struggles to see itself in and at the moment of happening, becoming all the more visible and gaining an art-like stasis only with the passage of time.

     Yet in Heaney, the ‘knife goes’, but it goes ‘lazily’, and later, objects are ascribed other levels of translucency, as the ‘yellowing’ ‘broom’ and ‘milky gleam’. The ‘gleam’, not specifically an object, but something emitted and created by the knife, symbolises the key concern of ‘The Seed Cutters’, which seemingly, by the brooding tone and various perspectives it breeds, is about seeing, and how the split between visibility and invisibility can not only lead, ironically, to increased lucidity, as the speaker’s mental reflections enlighten their vision, but also ignites a revelation regarding the body, and the monotony of the labourers’ domestic efforts. Here, Heaney’s split body at once comes into play. The work of ‘The Seed Cutters’, likewise toilsome and vigorous, fixes the workers in a state of communal identity, self-relishing individuality at the same time as it self-annihilates it:

          They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle.
          Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.
          They are the seed cutters.

     Repeatedly referred to as ‘they’, the workers are identified as a crowd, defined by the strenuous image their bodies make as a collective. Yet there is a sense the seed cutters work on impulse, and that even though their actions are carried out ‘lazily’, lethargic and monotonous, they also momentarily empower the time they have ‘to kill’ by prolonging their task. As the speaker tries to credit their own senses, and express a response to the mitigating environment around them, they steadily gain an assurance of their own belonging in space, which, remonstrative of Fyfe’s poignantly tentative sensitivity to displacement, becomes the poem’s greatest triumph.

     For Heaney, images of motion are varied, yet birds feature, briefly, here and there, as fleeing reference points against static and personalised interiors:

                    A magpie flew from the basilica
          and staggered in the granite airy space
          I was staring into

     This is clearly a poem, like Fyfe’s, without any traces of Bishop’s frantic inquisitions, as the speaker manages, convincingly, to attune the vast bolt of the ‘magpie’ to their own stillness. Yet where his use of the image finds resonance with Bishop, and, Fyfe, even, is in his comparison of the fleeing spontaneity of flight to the fixed, private stillness played out in farm-houses and lodgings of this sort. Though the speaker of ‘Station Island’ is clearly apt at grounding themselves in their territory, their enquiries, far from being absent, are in presence of a different sort, generating a compassionate, divine affinity for what is perpetually and infinitely private.

     Few speakers in Bishop are as aware of their own perspective as this. Yet many, without obviously disillusioning reality, go above and beyond the tentative consciousness possessing Fyfe’s speakers by refusing to exist in the world without questioning or curiously probing what it has to offer, funding Bishop’s preoccupation with journeys and leading, as this next stanza of ‘Poem’ demonstrates, to an aesthetic rise in atmospheric scrutiny:

          Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
          fresh-squiggled from the tube.
          The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
          clear as gray glass; a half-inch of blue sky

     Here, things are not connected to the world, but to the world as it is made by the artist. The ‘wild iris’ is not ‘white and yellow’ by nature, but because the colours have been ‘fresh-squiggled from the tube’, and though ‘the air is fresh and cold’, the ‘early spring’ it suggests is transcribed in a simile that likens it to ‘glass’, which is again a created and unnatural materiality. Again, Bishop’s typical tendency to measure and quantify the natural world re-surfaces, yet verbs like ‘squiggled’ and ‘closer’ here throw any attempts to find fixity off balance, instead arousing a sense of continuous change and movement that summons the idea nothing can be stabilised or permanently experienced.

     There is, in these poems, only one art, and that is art which arrives. Yet to arrive at silence is the most profound and certified influx of all, as with sound eradicated, visual co-ordinates must work harder to piece together reality:

          no subtitles, just torchbeam and whirr,
          the continuous whirr;
                              the same woman, old now,
          searching for children,

     The lack of ‘subtitles’, reminiscent of the earlier ‘closing credits’, of which there are none ‘to speak of’, yet made up for in a sense by the incomprehensible and insignificant ‘torchbeam and whirr’, posits the speaker in a position of heightened awareness, as the loss of signifiers in the environment means they must work harder to elucidate it. ‘That familiar town’, opening Fyfe’s ‘Backlit Days’, and immediately arousing what Helen Dunmore calls her charismatic ‘physical relics’, also invites a clandestine affiliation for memory that spans her work. Though the ‘mission-bell soundtrack’ and ‘black and white’ knitting attempt to impose order for the poem by structuring the ‘town’ according to sound, the visual edifice is just as, if not more so, compressing. The profound mystery, or rather the essential reason for the poem’s existence, is to re-amalgamate and speak for the activity of this town, yet in a space of unpolished demeanour, all the speaker finds is a continuation of what was, with the only signs of change lying in the advanced age of the ‘woman’. Here, as elsewhere, verbs continually revive restlessness, as ‘whirr’, ‘shaping’ and ‘flickering’ join to pose questions about the mutability of social space, until silence becomes not just a matter of playing ignorant to sound, but a sound in and of itself.

     Largely, it is ekphrastic poems in particular that contemplate how these sounds are heard, and asks how visual art, including forms of poetry, can problematize the normative passing of time by savouring moments of the past. Unsurprisingly, it is often this that leads Bishop, Heaney and Fyfe, amongst others, into a fixation on domestic security, and into ekphrastic turmoil, as they ask how isolating internal, private moments in poetry can synthesise the restless, external void between life and art. To go back to Bishop’s ‘A Cold Spring’, the branch-like spontaneity and drift affixed in the trees and leaves can now be seen to not only represent the stagnate and impenetrable nature of the outside world, but also the necessity of man, and the poet in particular, to understand that stagnation. Shown by the faltering ‘characteristics’ of the ‘trees’ and ‘leaves’ as impermanent and unfixed, what is beyond the speaker, and similarly beyond all speakers, including artists, is a vast array of transforming reality. The duty of the poet, as the poems analysed suggest, is to create illusory moments of pause in an otherwise disturbingly chaotic and fading world, and to constantly thwart expectation by learning how to be in flight without fleeing, leaving poets striving, like the bird of Heaney’s ‘Song’, for ‘that moment when their voice ‘sings very close/ to the music of what happens’.

Charlotte Rowland, Saturday September 14th 2013

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