Prose from Poetry Magazine

Strangers

Roddy Lumsden and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin make it weird.

by Peter Campion

Third Wish Wasted, by Roddy Lumsden.
Bloodaxe Books.
£7.95.

Selected Poems, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
Wake Forest University Press.
$12.95.

The Sun-fish, by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
Gallery Books.
$27.00 cloth; $17.50 paper.

If there are virtues specific to poetry, maybe the least discussed remains its ability to estrange. Shaped from language, the very medium in which we all consider ourselves experts, poems possess a distinct power to turn the familiar suddenly weird. Estrangement doesn’t always match up with difficulty or with technical innovation. Robert Duncan, for example, seems to me a less estranging poet than Robert Frost. Duncan, the great experimenter, most often worked by establishing startling new connections (he called them “rimes”) from out of his personal phantasmagoria. Frost, on the other hand, rooted his dramas and meditations in the home, the farm, and the nearby woods, and his prosody in the English metrical tradition, yet he worked continually to unsettle given habits of mind and feeling. As they course toward their endings, his poems leave the reader to confront fissures in the very surface of reality: a neighbor carrying stones looks for a second like a caveman, the headboard of a mother’s bed hides the attic where the bones of her erstwhile lover crumble, a picturesque winter landscape opens into vertiginous “desert places.” That’s how genuinely estranging poems operate: they lead us to some impasse, whether bewildering or wondrous or both, where our imagination and intellect must begin anew. We must start all over again on what the late Richard Poirier once called “the work of knowing.”

To American readers, Roddy Lumsden and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin may appear estranging poets simply because the former is Scottish, the latter, Irish. They use our same language in vividly unfamiliar ways. But even apart from their provenance, Lumsden and Ní Chuilleanáin are estranging poets in their own rights. With their different methods and with differing success, they both transport their reader into states of refreshed perception.

The poems in Roddy Lumsden’s fourth collection, Third Wish Wasted, show true invention on the level of line and phrase. A free-lance writer specializing in word-puzzles and quizzes, Lumsden has a nose for piquant diction: his lexicon is a spice cabinet where “amygdala dolly zoom” stands alongside “giddy orbis” and “walruses in oil.” The best poems are flavorful and, at moments, beautiful. Yet perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Lumsden engages in a debate with beauty. Take the last two sentences of his poem titled “The Beautiful,” in which he describes the odd sensations caused by glimpsing gorgeous people:

                                                   They
drift unapproached, gazed never-selves,
blunt paragons of genetic industry. We

desire them but cannot want such order.
We stand, mouths open, and cannot help
stammering our secrets, nailed to water.

Lumsden shows a knack in these lines for tight prosody: he weaves his pliant free-verse measure around a trellis of iambic pentameter (“desire them but cannot want such order.”) He also manages tonal shifts with deftness and pluck: the cleverness of “blunt paragons of genetic industry” contrasts with the beguiling final phrase, “nailed to water.” If the beauty and strangeness of that ending send ripples back up the poem, the madcap humor and the eye for oddness also work to justify the ending. In the world of Lumsden’s best poems, the gorgeous and the grimy live on the same street. “Jackpot,” “Against Complaint,” and “Quietus” seem to me particularly remarkable in this regard. Here are the final two tercets of “Quietus,” in which the poet offers a summation of the state of his own life:

And though not lost
my tongue will sicken for wine and wit
so long since tasted

The songs and slurs of cats
will jinx the air as I walk the limit
my third wish wasted

The blend of alienation and curiosity in these finely tuned lines swirls up throughout Lumsden’s book. Like Frost, whom he otherwise doesn’t resemble, Lumsden reaches his best when he combines his edginess with his companionable, even Horatian, tone of “wine and wit.”

But the extravagant variety also relates to the serious limitation of the book. I mean that for all of Lumsden’s wonderful vocabulary and prosodic density, I don’t find an actual grappling with subjects, a capacity for seeing and questioning the world which would speak of a larger talent. (This is the reverse problem of so many younger American poets, who have concepts by the boatload and no feel for the syllable.) Lumsden’s variety begins to look like a cover-up for the inability to cast a wider and deeper net of implication. His poems seem to come to him a little too easily. They too often sound merely journalistic.

Take the poem “Middleton.” It begins with a very promising descriptive passage:

The morning pans in black and white
           on mass retail developments,
industrial gulleys at the town edge,
           refineries marked on maps as palaces,
passers-through, who are the majority,
           rolling up their windows against
fish-scented air and hissing machinery.

The ghost in this machine turns out to be Philip Larkin, that great poet of “canals with floatings of industrial froth” and “cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies.” There’s nothing wrong with Lumsden’s engaging such an influence. But consider the ending of “Middleton”:

and that’s not evening settling on the tracks
            but a daily implosion, surefooted decline,
the purest essence of despair, life tax

for the settlers—can’t call them residents—
            who watch the spewing smokestacks
beyond the inching black river through glass
            which shivers and cracks, who whisper
beneath low ceilings in twiny accents
            in the rainy, lifelong comedown
while blackflies the size of house-cats,

death pilots, circle their pale scalps.

The poems of Larkin’s that this resembles, such as “The Whitsun Weddings,” “High Windows,” and “Mr. Bleaney” (the last seems particularly influential here), tend to move from mockery to sympathy. Lumsden’s poem, on the other hand, begins in mockery and ends in totalizing contempt. It’s not that he should have duplicated the movement of those Larkin poems; a poem that engages an influence usually benefits from announcing its difference. But even if Lumsden had decided to write a full-on execration upon British lower-middle-class life, he might have managed to deepen his poem as it moved from beginning to end. While Lumsden’s talent at the level of phrase and line often provides for tonic estrangement, the ending of “Middleton” feels predictable. We’re left with cartoonish stereotypes, enforced by the overweening and easy modifiers—of course the smokestacks are “spewing,” of course the scalps are “pale.” The tone begins to resemble an annoying Gen-X knowingness.

If I’ve come down hard on Lumsden, that’s because his talent for carefully measured yet extravagant moments offers a clarity and weirdness of perception that I wish he would display on a larger scale as well. The lack of any structural dynamism in “Middleton,” and in other poems that lapse into mere commentary or rely entirely upon peppy phrasing, indicates a failure to embody the mind in action. These poems suffer rather than benefit from being collected together. They pile up, when they should, instead, delve into real ideas and advance them.

*     *     *

The talent for such a process of development depends most of all upon a poet’s metaphorical sense. By “metaphorical sense” I mean a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It’s not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without “like” or “as,” but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness. A poet like Thom Gunn, for example, remains a much more metonymic than metaphorical writer. But throughout his work he builds a set of recurring figures—for example, the soldier, the outcast, the anonymous lover, the household, the garden. As he examines and re-examines these motifs, they begin to constellate a whole climate of thought and feeling as amplitudinous as any symbol system. Metaphorical sense always implies the vision of a larger shape of being. And yet this shape might as soon be a cosmic cacophony as an essential wholeness from which the artist draws form and order. It might appear through a spiritual vision, or through a completely secular and civic one, as in Gunn’s case (see Tom Sleigh’s excellent essay in the June 2009 issue of this magazine). It might result in a tragic cast of mind, or in a comic one. Sometimes a poet seems to begin with such a conception, from which the poems derive—Whitman, Yeats, Stevens. Other times, a poet appears to find his or her way through the poems to that conception, as if placing bandages on the invisible man—Frost, Williams, Bishop.

Whatever their derivation and however they operate, the groups of ideas in whose light the best poets perform their work are what make their poems so often feel estranging. This is because those ideas, taken together, form a wholly original view of life. We encounter and explore these views as if learning new languages, by immersion. The habits of perception in a newly discovered poet’s work are so unique that they often force us to break down our own pre-conceptions and learn the world afresh.

*     *     *

One of the great pleasures of reading Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin’s work comes from entering a world of such magnitude. Ní Chuilleanáin’s metaphorical sense is so total, in fact, that at times it almost becomes a risk. She seems to realize the risk: again and again, she manages to balance her highly developed set of emblems against the fragile, creaturely life she also honors. You could say that this balance is her very subject. Here, for example, is the opening of “The Lady’s Tower,” from her 1975 collection, Site of Ambush:

Hollow my high tower leans
Back to the cliff; my thatch
Converses with spread sky,
Heronries. The grey wall
Slices downward and meets
A sliding flooded stream
Pebble-banked, small diving
Birds. Downstairs my cellars plumb.

As clearly as Lumsden’s “Middleton” engages the influence of Larkin, this poem replies to Yeats. If Ní Chuilleanáin claims some of the hieratic force of the tower image, though, hers is not the haunt of the Irish senator’s “rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees.” As its title suggests, Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem offers a strongly feminine version of the tower symbol—“feminine” because she dwells upon details found in the locales of traditional “women’s work,” and in the world of vaguely medieval maidenhood that many of her poems inhabit. The particular images, of “thatch” and “heronries,” for example, as well as the stream and the “small diving” birds, all work to vivify the symbol. Yet perhaps in any discussion of this poem, “symbol” would be incorrect. If symbols recruit natural objects to convey spiritual realities, Ní Chuilleanáin’s nouns read like spiritual essences that have descended into objecthood, where they release their almost transcendent glimmers. Likewise, her scenes seem as if they’ve been razored from larger, panoramic narratives, which they intimate yet never fully reveal. The tower, for instance, still suggests its historical energies, its grand and fallen Celtic past, even while the poet works against that suggestion by lending it all the subtlety of her fine cross-hatching. I mean that Ní Chuilleanáin estranges the tower. She makes of a central locale of literary history a profoundly eccentric, new reality.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems may often read like partially occluded narratives, but they also respond to political and social occasions. In poems like “Fireman’s Lift” and “Pygmalion’s Image,” the poet addresses the sexual politics of visual art. In “The Architectural Metaphor,” she writes of the Magdalene Laundries, asylums where unmarried mothers and unwanted daughters were sent to perform manual labor. In her two most recent volumes, The Girl who Married the Reindeer from 2001, and The Sun-fish, which has just been released in Ireland, Ní Chuilleanáin presents social and naturalistic settings and imagery with higher resolution than in the past. The mystery remains, but it’s tempered more often now by social immediacy.

In “Gloss / Clós / Glas,” a poem originally published in The Girl who Married the Reindeer, and placed at the close of the new Selected Poems, the mystic material grows out of a traditional portrait. The poem portrays a scholar who, as he works in his study researching etymologies, experiences a kind of transformation. Here are the last ten lines:

The rags of language are streaming like weathervanes,
Like weeds in water they turn with the tide, as he turns
Back and forth the looking-glass pages, the words
Pouring and slippery like the silk thighs of the tomcat
Pouring through the slit in the fence, lightly,
Until he reaches the language that has no word for
his,
No word for
hers, and is brought up sudden
Like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.
Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?
The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.

I love how effortlessly Ní Chuilleanáin collapses the usual divisions between intellect and imagination: she has the books turn animal, even while she develops the transforming simile, the dream transport, with studious and exacting care. Masterful sentence structure carries the whole passage: for instance, the participle “pouring,” which at first seems expressionistic and strange, becomes lucid and naturalistic when repeated. This ending depicts a moment when the delineating power of language fails, as opposites of age and gender approach one another in a near epiphany. And yet the whole poem itself is about the power of words.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s tendency to counterpoint her enigmatic material with fuller narratives deepens in her newest volume, The Sun-fish. In “On Lacking the Killer Instinct,” she writes of her father’s war experience. In “The Polio Epidemic,” she delves into memories of her childhood in Cork City. The last poem in the book, “The Copious Dark,” follows a woman whose nighttime city walks form a whole atmosphere of mind. And her personal impressions relate to her social urge, her desire to account for others. Here’s how the poem ends:

                                                they would all be kept,
Those promises, for people not yet in sight:
Wellsprings she still kept searching for after the night
When every wall turned yellow. Questing she roamed
After the windows she loved, and again they showed
The back rooms of bakeries, the clean engine-rooms and all
The floodlit open yards where a van idled by a wall,

A wall as long as life, as long as work.
                                                                   The blighted
Shuttered doors in the wall are too many to scan—
As many as the horses in the royal stable, as the lighted
Candles in the grand procession? Who can explain
Why the wasps are asleep in the dark in their numbered holes
And the lights shine all night in the hospital corridors?

Without tooting her own horn, Ní Chuilleanáin writes in these lines an exact description of the imaginative largesse of her own poems. Through the various details that she nests in her subtle yet strong hexameter, she shows her ability to balance the social world of “the back rooms of bakeries, the clean engine-rooms” with the dreamy weirdness of wasps “asleep in the dark in their numbered holes.” It’s characteristic, in fact, that those shop scenes are oddly private, while the nearly surrealistic insects turn out to be an image of civic order. And if the night itself, the “copious dark” of the title, reads like a subtle but insistent reminder of death, the poet nuances that suggestion by responding with a combination of uncertainty and beautiful, creature care—conveyed by the image of the hospital corridors shining all night, and the question mark with which the entire book concludes.

Poems of genuine estrangement do more than simply unsettle our habits of mind and feeling: they manage, paradoxically, to elicit recognition, and even familiarity. While their very success depends upon transcending the limits of the personal, as Ní Chuilleanáin’s suggestive symbols and resonant narratives certainly do, such poems also offer the individual mind, the subjective person herself, as a measure of being. Writers like Lumsden at his better moments and Ní Chuilleanáin in her steady and increasing success return us to human scale. Perhaps this is why the most impressive poems often feel so estranging. They show us how profoundly unknown, though not necessarily unknowable, our actual lives may be.

Originally Published: December 1, 2009

COMMENTS (1)

On December 28, 2009 at 12:39pm Edgar H. Siscar wrote:
so estranging but
poetry is even
stranger than
no-other-man's
fiction!

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2009

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 Peter  Campion

Biography

Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005) and The Lions: Poems (2009). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry St. John, Mitchell Johnson, and Eric Aho. He regularly publishes literary and art criticism in numerous journals and has won a Pushcart Prize.

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