This visual poem by John Furnival cheers me up every time I look at it. I keep it on my desk, a talisman against computer crashes, “to do” lists, rejection letters, the hundred daily annoyances and setbacks – the usual stuff that gets to writers, or anyone who works for him/herself (at home, alone, where you have no one to complain to). It reminds me that the things I worry about are not that important in the great scheme of life. It calms me down, it makes me smile. But it is difficult to say how Furnival achieves what he achieves: how does it work, why does it work – this simple, playful placement of just four words?
Well, there’s something about colour. NEVER and DOESN’T are in black, so that your eye is confronted with a solid column of negativity. But this is lightened by MIND and MATTER in green. MIND is lightest, so that it is the word you notice the most, lighter than matter, which makes sense if you think of their respective meanings (more on that in a minute). Green is soft, natural, peaceful; it is a contrast to all that black, to all that negativity. Even though black is darker, it is the green which you see more clearly. A beacon.
And to meaning. MIND and MATTER can be nouns or verbs. As verbs, they have similar meanings, to be concerned or worried. But as nouns, they are very different: the mind being the faculty of consciousness or thought, and matter being physical substance, distinct from mind or spirit. One is internal, one is external. But the mind can ponder over matters, which are also problems or issues. And the mind is also described as ‘grey matter’. So that to read across gives us a multiplicity of meaning: DOESN’T MATTER NEVER MIND is the first phrase you see, the one which gives you hope, a bit of perspective. MATTER NEVER MIND DOESN’T for me has a hidden comma after NEVER, a phrase which says you shouldn’t care about things, because deep down, the mind has more important concerns. In the next line, the first thought is reversed, but means the same: NEVER MIND DOESN’T MATTER. And then a contrast to the second statement, a double negative: MIND DOESN’T MATTER NEVER, a phrase which says that intellectualising won’t get you anywhere.
But reading down is interesting too. We’ve already talked about that ‘negative column’; what negates the negatives is MIND over MATTER, MATTER over MIND and the place in the centre where they weave together, team up. And that’s the magic, that place where things get worked out.
And it’s repetitive. A chant, a mantra, something to keep saying to yourself, over and over, again and again. We like repetition. That’s why we like verse forms that keep swooping over themselves like starlings; the villanelle or the pantoum or the ghazal. It is lulling, soothing. The more we say it, the more we believe it.