Derek Mahon

Adlestrop again . . .

The most famous non-place in all of poetry, a location that really does exist, but in its literary incarnation only as one of those ‘places where a thought might grow’, to quote Mahon. Last week saw the centenary of Thomas’s most famous poem, conceived in a moment of heat and ennui, in that most common of situations – while the train had come to a complete halt for no apparent reason. It happens to all of us, and quite a few of us take out our notebooks and spend the non-hours composing poems, but not usually as striking as this. Although there was a good old-fashioned debate on Facebook about why (and if) we should still read Adlestrop, why (and if) it’s still valid 100 years later, I stand by my belief that it is one of the great poems of the last century.

Why??? This little exercise, conducted in the spirit of fun, made me consider ‘why’ again. Four poets – Jenny King, Pru Kitching, Marilyn Francis and Meg Cox – decided to ‘workshop’ Adlestrop and have come up with this ‘reduced’ version. The poets in question are all experienced and published, and have attended many workshops over the years, so they are all aware of the usual pitfalls when writing poems: removing cliché, redundancy, archaic diction and exaggeration. This generally makes for a stronger, tighter, better piece.

But not on this occasion. Although in workshops you are often told not to repeat the title in the opening lines, it is important that Thomas keeps saying the name, so that it becomes an incantation, in all its plain English dowdiness. He not only repeats the place, but also ‘the name’, because naming is one of the things we do in poems, one of the things we do when we are trying to commit something to memory; the poet might recognise that this is a significant moment, even if he doesn’t quite understand wholly why. Why is Adlestrop, the name (simply the name, and not the place – remember, Thomas never gets off the train, this is all he even knows of the place), important? This is what the poem will show us.

So our workshoppers would have admonished Thomas to not repeat the place, ‘the name’. They want him to say ‘one hot afternoon’ instead of ‘one afternoon / Of heat’, not to say ‘It was late June’, assuming that ‘hot’ will do the work of saying ‘summer’. This is where the line breaks come into their own, the narrative unravels more slowly: we know what time of day it is, and then we know it is hot, and then, as if he needs to remind himself (the poem is in the past tense, after all), he tells us what time of year it is. High summer. Also, ‘one afternoon / Of heat’ feels hotter to me than ‘one hot afternoon’, and ‘heat’ suggests other kinds of heat, perhaps passion, perhaps what’s going on in the rest of the world (now there’s a hint …). And it gets picked up in a rhyme with ‘steam’ in the next stanza. And the rhythm is better. The workshoppers also want our poet to lose ‘Unwontedly’, which to my mind might be the most important word in the poem. Without it, we don’t know that the train isn’t supposed to stop at Adlestrop, but in its important position, at the beginning of the line, it also suggests that there is no choice. As passengers on the train, they are stuck. They will stop at Adlestrop, whether they want to or not. It is an odd word choice, it does stick out, but that’s because Thomas wants us to notice it. It carries a further message: you can’t always get what you want, to quote the Stones.

Our workshoppers have actually made a grammatical error in the first line of the second stanza, as it should be ‘his’ and not ‘their’. Why is this line so long? Because it’s a moment extended, as if boredom can be measured. They rightly want to pare down adjectives, but ‘bare’ is one of those words that to my mind doesn’t just mean empty: it’s exposed, vulnerable, stripped down to its absolute essence. It emphasises its emptiness. All the people are gone. The inevitable question is where are they? Apart from the passengers on the train, the landscape Thomas is travelling in is completely devoid of people.

Because then what he does, because he is Edward Thomas, and cared deeply about such things, is he lets nature run riot. What is on the platform in place of people are the beautiful weeds and wild flowers of the English countryside. This list – willowherb, meadowsweet, haycocks – complete with the excited ‘And’s, is important. Nature will always be there when all else is abandoned (I wonder what Thomas would have made of the ecopoetry of the beginning of this century?). But then he makes a strange turn our workshoppers don’t care for, and for years has had me puzzled as well. The diction, which has been straightforward and fairly plain until now, becomes very nineteenth century: ‘No whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky’. Our workshoppers quite rightly jump on this as ‘poetic’ (the worst crime I think in a poem is to be ‘poetic’). Thomas knows this. Why? He’s getting our attention (like the guy who cleared his throat a few lines back). This is how poets the generation before him wrote about nature. How can he, a modern poet at the beginning of the twentieth century, write about nature? Perhaps he hasn’t entirely worked it out. Or perhaps the point he’s making is that this place is not romantic, and not matter how beautiful your language, it will still be an empty train platform. Perhaps he is also saying that nature is what elevates us in times of despair, so he heightens his rhetoric to do so. If you dig into the lines, he is still making the same point – despite the beauty of this wild place, it is lonely (how else to get that word in, apart from pretend you’re a poet of a different age?). He is also lifting us up, into the sky, so he can bring in that blackbird.

Our workshoppers would have liked Thomas to end there, on the blackbird. They want him to delete the final three lines: ‘Close by, and round him, mistier, / Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. ‘Can a sound be misty?’ They ask. Perhaps if it is being recalled in the haze of memory. ‘Exaggeration’, they claim. I agree. There is no way that Thomas would have heard this, the poem up until this point being a faithful account of what happened when the train stopped. If the poem stops here, then that’s all it is, a faithful account, but the final three lines are the epiphany. And here’s where the other fact comes in – the world is on the brink of war, and it’s as if Thomas and his fellow passengers are suspended in that moment, waiting to see what will come next. They are powerless to change destiny, as are we all. Thomas was held in a place stuck in time, and he knew the world was about to change beyond all recognition, not just because of the war, but because of progress, industry, the things a new century might bring that he couldn’t even imagine. He would never see those things of course, and it is true that with the hindsight of his death, not so long after writing this, it becomes a more moving poem.

Some of my students may be reading this and saying to themselves, hold on, you’re not practicing what you preach. And it’s true, in workshops I often give advice similar to the advice the four poets here are giving their absent workshop pal Thomas (who indeed, used to workshop his poems with Robert Frost, who could be a pretty tough critic). Their advice is not wrong, and applied to another poem, it would no doubt improve it. But it is also true that some poems just manage to break the ‘rules’ with impunity, and their poets get away with saying things that somehow in another setting just wouldn’t hold up. It is impossible to say how that works – it just does. Somehow the right words come together in the right arrangement and make something which is unbreakable. For me, that’s Adlestrop, perfect and strange, and still fresh, 100 years on.

The Sound of Secrets

We embarked for the Ness on a boat from Orford Quay early on Saturday morning. The sky was grey, the sea darker – the colour of mutton-fat jade, as in Bishop’s poem ‘The End of March’. Our group had read the poem the night before, and discussed the various endings being marked, not just the end of winter, but also the end of wanderings (thinking about the pun in the title) – Bishop had travelled the earth, but her only wish was to retire to a little house (the proto-dream-house in the poem) where she could do nothing:

or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, on foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

(We didn’t really believe her. That restless, active imagination of hers could never still). It is also an end of life poem – Bishop died two years after it was published. In a way it’s her version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’; a poet at the end of her career, not so much worried about the exit of imagination (as Yeats was) as almost willing her imagination to cease. How exhausting it is to always be thinking of the poem in every situation, the imagination working overtime.

But back to the Ness, where we had come expressly to write poems. It is a place where you can’t stop the imagination from running off in all directions. It makes us question what it was like to be there in those heady secret days of code breaking and bomb making. It is a place of extraordinary contrasts: beauty and barrenness, an abundance of life amongst symbols of death, a frail ecosystem in a place that still contains unexploded ordnance.

When we arrived on the Ness, Silke, a National Trust volunteer, gave us the usual speech about staying on the paths (due to the aforementioned unexploded ordnance), where to find the information building and the toilets, but then broke into a moving and completely unrehearsed eulogy to the Trinity Lighthouse, which has stood on the Ness since 1792, and has survived storms, machine-guns and bombs, but will not survive the sea. The lighthouse will be engulfed in the next few years (in 2011, the section of the coast where the lighthouse is situated eroded by 200 meters). It has already been decommissioned, its light turned off, its mercury removed. Another ending. Silke suggested we all go and hug it one last time.

Before we took off to explore, I read a passage from The Rings of Saturn, in which WG Sebald describes his arrival on the Ness:

The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. I had not a single thought in my head. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. Perhaps that was why I was frightened almost to death when a hare that had been hiding in the tufts of grass by the wayside started up, right at my feet, and shot off down the rough track before darting sideways, this way, then that, into the field. It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me. I still see what occurred in that one tremulous instant with an undiminished clarity. I see the edge of the grey tarmac and every individual blade of grass, I see the hare leaping out of its hiding-place, with its ears laid back and a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided; and in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it. Not till half-an-hour later, when I reached the broad dyke that separates the grass expanse from the pebble bank that slopes to the shoreline, did the blood cease its clamour in my veins.

These days, now that the Ness has reinvented itself as a nature reserve, that sense of fear that Sebald describes has perhaps dissipated. Midas Dekkers talks about the ‘benevolent silence’ that reigns over military ruins. Is that sense of benevolence more relief on our part that this place has passed into peace? Or are some places always tainted by association, the very earth poisoned by the associations of its past (on the Ness, this is a literal tainting, if we consider the undiscovered bombs that may lie just below the surface)? Sebald gets this – he could never really go anywhere without excavating the layers of the place and finding all the glittery trash of history and memory. And now the Natural Trust, who acquired the Ness in 1993, operate a policy of ‘controlled ruination’, which is why the lighthouse is being allowed to fall into the sea. Christopher Woodward writes about this in his book In Ruins. Apparently, the NT originally thought to demolish the bunkers and sheds:

It was Jeremy Musson, an architectural historian working for the Trust at the time, who first argued their value as ruins. The Ness of shifting shingle, he said, was a palimpsest of twentieth-century history, from the wooden huts of the First World War to the Cold War’s Pagodas. In a new and hopefully more peaceful century the ruins would crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by Nature.

I guess if Sebald were still with us he might argue against the possibility of the last statement. It is true that Woodward’s book was published before September 11th and the new wars of the 21st century in which destruction is orchestrated largely by computers. And even Nature has turned against us, in a way, with the threat of Global Warming and ecological crisis. So maybe Sebald was right to embrace fear.

Later, after we returned to Mendham Mill, the well-manicured and picture-pretty birthplace of Sir Alfred Munnings (you couldn’t imagine a greater contrast to the landscape of the Ness), we read poems about ‘secret landscapes’ and ruin. I chose Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, written in the 70s, around the time that the MoD was clearing out of the Ness, and Northern Ireland was at the height of the Troubles. I have mentioned this poem before on Invective, loaded as it is with all the terrors of the century in which I was born. It’s worth quoting the whole poem, but I’ve found this, a recording of the poem read beautifully by Kevin Porter:

Hugh Haughton writes of Mahon’s poem:

it remains a haunting instance of the way a forgotten place — not an archaic, pre-historic place but a modern place full of historical rubbish — might become a place where thought might grow. The site of a new kind of poetics of commemoration.

Haughton could so easily be writing about the Ness in that passage, ‘a modern place full of historical rubbish’. But it’s Sebald I will finish on, as no one has written so meaningfully and so articulately about what it is like to stand on Orford Ness, with that huge sky lowering, and think about how it came to be:

My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.

More images and poems from the weekend at Orford Ness will be posted on the Mendham Writers site. My thanks to Rochelle Scholar at Medham Writers:

The waiting room

Much to consider following the After Sebald weekend in Suffolk. The discussions focused primarily on the notion of place and its meanings, and although memory and history came into these discussions, less was said about Sebald’s portrayal of time in relation to place. In his world, time is slippery, hard to pin down. There are clocks in train stations or hotel lounge bars which might tell you the time at that moment, but Sebald is concerned more with continuum: what has happened here, what might happen here. What is happening is less certain, as the mind leaps from one thought to the next, as one voice gives over to another.

What Sebald is suggesting is that a place is never just what we see before us, so burdened as place is with event. The most terrible events are not forgotten, even with the passage of time. Nearly every day I pass through Stockwell tube station, and nearly every time I do, I notice the plaque (now a permanent memorial) for Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian shot dead by police marksmen one ordinary day in July while he was on his way to work – a case of mistaken identity (for which the police have never been called to account). He is forever linked to Stockwell tube station, a random location recast as the site of a horrible tragedy.

I’m reminded (again) of the beginning lines of ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ by Derek Mahon, where the poet lists sites of abandonment, ‘places where a thought might grow’, before he focuses on the location of the title, where ‘a thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole’ in the shed where they have lived ‘a half century, without visitors, in the dark.’ Mahon sees them as outcasts, the forgotten victims hidden away in a forgotten location. At the end of the poem, he compares them to the ‘lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’, locations which are not forgotten, which are only recalled now for their tragedies, and to that list we could add other major locations such as Lockerbie or the World Trade Centre, and smaller and smaller places, such as Stockwell tube station, or any number of roadside shrines where flowers are placed, which in turn wilt and die. The shed in the poem becomes all of those places, where time continues, but only through the process of decay.

Grant Gee, director of the film Patience (After Sebald) which had its premiere at the weekend, came closest to finding an analogy for Sebald’s timeframes. He talked about the slow fade as a cinematic technique to pass from one scene to another. Sebald’s own analogy is to photography rather than film; in Austerlitz he talks about ‘the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.’

My analogy goes back to poetry, and something I just mentioned in a previous post; the stanza break represents a moment when time can be altered, when the poet might clear his / her throat and start a new idea. The white space represents a silence, a moment in time captured, a freeze frame.