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from An Island That Is All The World

By Anselm Berrigan

I’m fortunate to have a bit of an off day today, which will allow me to take my young daughter up the Museum of Natural History here in NYC, and maybe if time permits on a walk across Central Park to visit the bird life before heading back downtown where tonight I’m taking part in a reading for this new book of unpublished work by James Schuyler that has just been released. It’s a busy period, full of work, readings, anxieties and visits – my mother arrives in town today, I’ve recently been to Needles, CA, Philadelphia, PA and Detroit (a fierce, winning town to my eyes despite all of its ruins and empty spaces marking a possible wider future for urban America) for family and work purposes. But in the midst of it all I’ve been keeping an eye on this date’s arrival as it was ten years ago today that the British poet, novelist, teacher and journalist Douglas Oliver, also my stepfather, passed away from prostate cancer in Paris, where he was living with my mother. My primary feeling towards Doug at this moment is gratitude for his work and for having had the honor to know and love him as friend and second father, a gift the rarity of which is never lost on me (in many ways I was closer to Doug than I ever could have been with my father, who died when I was ten, which is not a statement of comparison but one of simple fact and timing). Along with the familial relationship, Doug’s influence on me through his writing, his humor, his political independence and sense of ethics and social responsibility as well as his care for the art of poetry goes deeper than I can really get into here (though there’s a wealth of information on Doug’s work here and a sampling of his work here), but I can say at the moment (at least before my daughter, who is causing me to write this in a rather haphazard fashion by using all of her 29-month old wiles to prevent any continuity of writing to take place, as she should) that dipping back into Doug’s book three variations on the theme of harm last night was, again, as it has been repeatedly across the years, a revitalizing experience. By his own description Doug was malleable in his artistic practice: an inventor of forms, insecure and changeable, ever on the lookout for what poetry might need someone to be doing as a guide to his own efforts to change. Thus he could speak of, as he did in the preface to his book of prose and poetry A Salvo for Africa, the need to write in “a direct, undissembled voice, though one that exposes its deficiencies: my more avant-garde poetic styles are not appropriate here,” and be speaking literal truth free of pretense and borne of a direct engagement with form and prosody that was truly protean within a deep need to grapple with subject matter operating on the deepest public and (yes) personal levels, among others (and yes there too). I’m going to paste in below two works that are part of An Island That Is All The World, found in the aforementioned three variations of the theme of harm along with his novel The Harmless Building, and the great satirical long poem “The Infant & The Pearl,” another prose and poetry sequence (the alternation of short prose pieces and poems coming out of the concerns elucidated in the prose was a kind of dual vehicle Doug used several times). By way of further intro I’ll quote from his own preface to that work: “what does it mean to talk of spirituality in poetry when no religious belief lies behind the inquiry? An unfashionable question. Avoiding intellectual sophistication, I shall look at the actual occasions of poems to find, not ways of explaining them, but spiritual sources in childish or adult sides of personality….” I’d like to quote the whole preface, but I’m already pushing the limits of space here, so I hope you’ll bear with all of this to get to the works below, while separately I’ll be keeping an eye out this afternoon for the occasional heron one can catch a glimpse of on a good day in Central Park.

from An Island That Is All The World

“The goldpoint of my own whole life is the sketchbook drawing, where the boy, reading, looks beautiful in the promise of that luminescent moment. Then I know, too, that the boy was beginning the stormy adolescence usual in the 1950s. Not realizing his happiness, he would rage out of his house to go and watch birds on the marshes in Christchurch harbour; in the flight of geese, gulls, herons and smaller wading birds he found the freedom and rhythmic grace that soon were to lead him to poetry and to the mysteries of its stress.

In a poem, each stress is held in memory and perceived as a unity of sound, meaning and special poetic emotion. All durational things on either side of the stroke (the wing-beat) of stress – the length of its syllable, all its sound qualities, what words come immediately before and after it in the poetic line, the whole movement of the line – make us think how weighty or light the individual stress is. The stress centres a tiny island in memory. The centre of the island is occluded; it is the moment when we believe the stress actually happened. We can even strike its instant, a little late, by tapping a finger. If we could bring all those instants fully into consciousness, the poem would become vivid.

We are faced with the ancient question about time: how could we consciously experience an instant of time, when we always conceive instants too late and when an instant can’t contain anything at all? Time, self … very small moments of self-experience as portrayed in a sketch … poetic stress: how can we fill this stroke of time which has no duration with meanings and emotions that have? How can an instant and duration be imagined as simultaneous? It’s what Christians suppose to happen in the mind of God.

When we try to bring an isolated instant into consciousness, this mystical possibility doesn’t occur, because of the tardiness of our minds. We say: the clock has just ticked. I was this kind of self just now or then, that stress was weak or heavy by an exact weighting. We make in memory a little working model containing the past and future of the moment and, by mental trick, convince ourselves that we experience that model as a present moment. The models are these mental islands of time; and poetic stresses are the smallest clear and complex examples of them I know.

The Heron

I talk only of voices either real or virtual in my ear;
of shadows, only those that pass over islands’ sunny turf
vivid to my eye. But when I come to all my birds,
all I’ve ever seen, they are too many. I talk of things unseen.

Together, they would pack the sky like moving embroidery
in the white silks, browns and blacks of their great tribe,
endless litters of puppies writhing,
a heavenly roof alive but no progress of flight in it.

Every memory adds to this intricate plot;
starting up redshanks first, and they bank, flashing white,
across a sepia estuary where I felt freedom
in watching their undulating patters on the air.

They flight down but hold at mid-height: horizontal
stick puppets of the Styx. The black light whitens
with the harmonious wings of swan formations,
the day cast over with their bright feathering.

Behind the swans the sky absolutely fills with starlings
homing to roost as once I saw them over Stonehenge;
gulls flock up and hold there, and brown Passeriformes
spring between airspaces and stop on invisible branches.

Millions of birds, crows and daws, teal,
quicker wing-beated than wigeon, among mallard hordes;
swift print arrows on the pulsating featheriness;
the sky is covered over with the puppy litters.

I can’t tell you all the names; I’m worried
about the birds rabbling the sky. D’you suppose
I can avoid even the dusty body of every sparrow,
or every sparrow hawk flipping over a thicket?

Unseen, this nature crowds my mind. If there’s pulsation,
it’s disturbing; if stasis it’s a painting
and all the life goes out; but any sudden switch
between pulse and the static is schizophrenic.

In the foreground of the multifarious flights
one talismanic bird, a heron, lifts to the top
of its single leg and takes off like an umbrella.
Fluff in a corner of the past becomes grey flame.

Its shoulders unshackle and heave, legs become the addendum,
the beak stabs out purposefully from the sunken neck.
It sails. In this flight’s brevity,
I find what lives for me among all the dead songs.

Douglas Oliver (14 September, 1937  – 21 April, 2000)


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 by Anselm Berrigan.