CLARITY OR DEATH! New poems
published on July 30 2008 by Carcanet Press, £9.95.
to buy this go to www.carcanet.co.uk
Cover image from Leonid Lerman, 'Censor' 2002.
*The coffee stain
the coffee stain I’ll call it
on your hip
the many washes of a spill
upon a tablecloth might produce
just that shade and littoral
but haven’t so far as I am aware
expect by now a love poem
(whosoever might expect)
but what I am saying is not
to do with longing
the ball of my finger across your nipple
and what would be the lightest touch there
but with whatever is like and like
within blotch dab patch
and is necessary to think of
and beautiful and
like the loveliness of conjunctions
whereas on your hip is one shade and littoral
‘A Kind of Mud-Wrestling’.
Excerpts from a discussion with Helen Tookey interspersed with poems from CLARITY OR DEATH! Read the full version in PN REVIEW 182, July-August 2008.
Clarity or Death! was written at intervals between about 2001 and 2005. I had been reading a certain amount of popular science: the books include Ian Stewart’s Nature’s Numbers, John D. Barrow’s The Origin of the Universe and Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces. I guess I was trying to repair my unscientific education somewhat and having another go at teleology from another point of view. …
. . . walking the same route along a suburban reach of the Mersey which included a bend where a patch of gravel would become exposed when the river was low and where all kinds of stuff would ground when it was high. Often you’d see a heron and occasionally a fox. Now in Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (irresistibly subtitled 'The Fundamentals of Physics Explained') there is a passage where he stands on a the shore and ponders how the ostensibly different things he experiences " sand, moon, sea, wind, sky, light etc" might be understood to have things in common" the geology of sand and rocks and moon for instance, the flows of water and wind. Such analysis, he argues, hopes to enable us ‘to reduce the number of different things and thereby understand them better.’ Going back to the passage I see he never uses the word ‘beach’, but that patch of exposed Mersey gravel became for me Feynman’s ‘beach’ and on that spot the abstract ideas about science and the bits of experience became fused, together, a little later, with some ideas about abstract art in the ‘we may be able to reduce the number of different things’ sequence.
*from 'we may be able to reduce the number of different things'
Here on my little river-beach with Feynman
(he who professes the nose of a spaniel)
I practise the learned thought of how the local heron
will feel the same current in air as in water,
that this flow slips by the delta-wing,
rips the tide round Sark,
braces the fox as he sets
his mask for home,
and that all these can be understood together,
drawn in lines that themselves
bear nothing, move nothing,
yet, with just the faintest nudge for variables,
display the laws that bring the log ashore
like a heavy man.
Throughout the whole book the tongue slips in and out of the cheek. Indeed there’s something cheeky about the adaptation from Wittgenstein’s ‘I wish to God that I were more intelligent and everything would finally become clear to me or else that I didn’t live much longer!’ to 'Clarity or Death!' Who knows how serious he was as he wrote that in a letter? I’d like to be more intelligent too, and it might be because I’m not that I can’t escape some feeling that my efforts at my subjects are a bit quixotic, hence the self-satirical exclamation mark.
This is at its most serious in those last poems in the book that you mention, ‘call death an observation’. The poems are about my mother’s death which came after some five weeks in an Intensive Care Unit. In the many hours I spent there I was absorbed by the precision of the measuring and monitoring ‘fluids in and fluids out’ and therefore what certain lines and points ‘mean’. The ultimate in all senses is what we call ‘the point of death’, but as the ‘A point is never alone’ poems ask, where, or what is a ‘point’? Working intuitively there is dream material in ‘call death …’ - the poems perhaps marry two parts of the personal: the holding of ideas, and the emotions of that time.
*from 'call death an observation'
mathematics makes up the bolus,
what could be truer than such proceedings?
the equations of fluids in and fluids out,
the charting and cross-checking
towards a line to be pronounced upon:
the baby-like milky regurge
at the corner of the mouth,
sent out, uncalibrated, bubbling slightly
but somewhere there the point -
it happens always and the line is true
and before the May-dawn, the conventional dream-ship,
bulk cargo freighter, or sharp-prowed liner,
the black Normandie or another such,
seemingly unworked, eyeless, unhurried;
and knowing you cannot row aside