Prose from Poetry Magazine

A Change of Heart

A review of Third Day, New and Selected Poems by Grey Gowrie
"Poets have undergone changes of heart for as long as poets have had hearts to change."
Third Day, New and Selected Poems, by Grey Gowrie.
Carcanet Press. £9.95.

Half a lifetime ago, I was a young publisher with an old problem: to publish or not to publish a manuscript of poems. The poet was also young, but far from being a typical “young poet.” Grey Gowrie was the 2nd Earl of Gowrie, a Conservative whip in the House of Lords who, in 1971, would represent the British government on the Human Rights Committee at the United Nations.

I knew only (but not from him) that he was a Lord, less well known in British poetry circles than American, apparently: an acknowledgements notice showed that something in the manuscript I was reading had been published by Poetry. I liked the poems. They had an attractive and distinctive voice, a hint of Byron perhaps—not only in his manuscript’s title, A Postcard from Don Giovanni—and perhaps a hint of Lowell, hardly surprising in the seventies. I didn’t then know he’d been Lowell’s assistant and friend, much as Ezra Pound had been Yeats’s, and I see it as a mark of the caliber of both younger poets that their work was not more influenced by the older.

I said “publish,” and A Postcard from Don Giovanni appeared in 1972 (seven years before the same postcard publisher recommended publication of A Martian Sends a Postcard Home). The book was favorably received, but its author then soared into a stratospheric public orbit out of sight and sound of earthbound poets. Lord Gowrie became Minister for the Arts, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Chairman of the Arts Council of England. “The rest is silence,” his publisher thought. “You can’t win them all.”

And silence there was, for more than thirty years; a silence then broken (for those who can hear the poems they read in literary magazines) by one haunting and mysterious poem after another. The mystery was revealed when Gowrie’s darkly glittering tesserae were assembled in the mosaic of a poetic sequence entitled The Domino Hymn: Poems from Harefield, published as a pamphlet in 2005 by Agenda Editions and the Greville Press. Why “Domino”? Was this the mask of the masquerading Don Giovanni? No, but so intelligent a poet would neither have been unaware nor, I suspect, displeased by the word’s ancient associations. Gowrie’s modern domino (yet to be recorded in the second edition of the OED) is a form of multiple heart transplant, involving the removal of three hearts and the transplanting of two. He was to receive the heart of a cystic fibrosis sufferer, who in turn would receive the heart and lungs of a dead man.

Poets have undergone changes of heart for as long as poets have had hearts to change, but Gowrie is surely the first to undergo the change literally, rather than metaphorically; the first, since the beginning of time, to have first-hand experience (I shudder at my own adjective) of a domino change; the first to write from a heart only newly his own. And what does he make of this experience, so disturbing in its neurological, psychological, philosophical implications? “Cometh the moment, cometh the man”: a man who can say “death has never been a worry to me”—evidently a characteristic inherited from a centuries-long, Anglo-Irish line of soldiers, a father killed in the Western Desert, a grandfather who won the Victoria Cross.

Gowrie’s Domino Hymn displays not only familial coolness under fire, but curiosity, a constant questioning of every sensory signal he receives, an unsparingly unsentimental eye and ear:
Lights come on, patient sleepers wake
from semi-dreams of the death of a likely donor
or dawn alert of car and helicopter
bearing our lives swaddled in salt, in ice,
hopeful but threatening.

                                  The false alarm
ebbs quickly. We sink, relieved and sorry,
back on the pillows to the litany
of news from nowhere: Sri Lanka, Timor, Belfast;
a nowhere irredeemably Balkanised.
     —From The Squall
The remorseless honesty of those balanced pairings—“hopeful but threatening. . . . relieved and sorry”—leads into the next poem, “Harvest.” Here, “news from nowhere” becomes “bad news” (or good news?) from somewhere nearer home, nearer Harefield hospital:
bad news: a rail smash with thirty dead,
a superstore turned into a mortuary,
the wreathed furtive smile of a survivor.
We say our Dreadfuls and fail to meet
each other’s eyes, eyes facing the screen,
each iris a well of anticipation.
The wait continues until the approach of Christmas and its promise of glad tidings, a late harvest:

                                   the roads’
bounty, the annual

Christmas crop . . .
Our wise men
wash hands together before the operation
and glove up.
     —From Call
The surgeons do their technically brilliant work, and, as soon as the poet regains consciousness, he resumes his work, monitoring their monitoring before (how long after?) he can take us back to the “Third Day”—“And the third day he rose again”—and perform his own technically brilliant operation (which must be quoted in full):
Respirators sound like trout feeding
at night in some dream hatchery—no one there
to listen; our subaqueous world of care
is halfway blue—peaceful, unthreatening.

Spectacles pressed to the glass, our specialists
walk by to look us over and seem the same
until, mask-mouthed, they enter: clipboard lists
distinguish the paraphernalia from the name.

We are our medication, and the machines
programmed to meet an individual case
more than identity now. We may have been;
some may become again. We have no face

to lose, to look at, but it’s pleasant here,
suspense suspended, nothing to be done
for the time being—time being our time won
to flail for birth again and fight for air.
What was “threatening” in “The Squall” is now “unthreatening.” Time has been won; time for rebirth and the fight for air, which the calm confidence of the rhymed quatrains suggests is a fight that will also be won.

The title poem, “The Domino Hymn,” records a triumphant victory (also recorded on film), a victory shared by:
          a few men and women
who complete it now and tear
     their masks off at the result
as if throwing their hats in the air.
They share it with “the wrapped patient,” a man courageous and robust enough to come to terms with a change of heart; and last but far from least, they share it with a poet sensitive and skillful enough to make a masterpiece of their shared victory. Gowrie’s “Domino Hymn”—the poem not the sequence—moves from past to future:
     Windows: papery shades
or slats maybe—slats sound fine—
     filter new knowledge: the heart
that beats is no longer mine
     so logically it belongs
to someone else who they say
     (so in the future they tell me)
is lying a few feet away.

     A Domino. A man
died and his heart and lung
     helicoptered to shelter inside
the cavity of this young
     man who lent me his heart
in turn that January
     night of the operation
in two thousand AD.
AD standing, of course, both for “A Domino” and Anno Domine. Gowrie, like Byron, is a wit.

I can’t remember when last, if indeed ever, I dared to use the word “masterpiece” of the work of a contemporary. I do so now in the confidence that I am celebrating qualities to be found in certain of Gowrie’s poetic predecessors (Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, Keith Douglas ) of whom his martial predecessors might approve.
Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

Born in London, editor, critic, and poet Jon Stallworthy earned his B.Litt and MA at the University of Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Poetry Prize. A reviewer for Critical Quarterly praised his first collection, The Astronomy of Love (1961), with the observation that Stallworthy shows “a gift few poets...

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  1. February 6, 2009
     Elisabeth Murawski

    I'd read Stallworthy's review of Third Day... in hard copy and wanted to buy the book. Lazy, I looked to your website, jotted down the spelling in the online header "Cowrie" and then ran into a dead end at Amazon and even Carcanet. Nobody by that name. Not until I looked again at the website, did I notice that Gowrie had been misspelled in the header. The hard copy doesn't have a header so it's fine there. A cautionary tale?