Embroiled Daily in His Own Decease: W.S. Graham on Writing, Relating, and Dying

‘”Therefore All Poems are Elegies”: To be so closely caught up in the teeth of things
that they kill you, no matter how infinitesimally kill you, is, truly, to be a poet’ (1).

The Nightfishing – a poem, a voyage, an elegy. Or numerous infinitesimal elegies: a Promethean return of death and rebirth. A poem that reads like a continual reawakening, to consciousness, to a present made different, to a newness of life and being. But also a poem in which every line brings a pause – a death whose finality is total – from whose closure the next line brings a jolt like a breath. It is a poem, a voyage, that performs a constant renewal. “Nothing but the enchaining of renewed beginnings” (2): a poem that dramatizes and celebrates the continuous becoming-other of being.

***

It begins with the sound of a bell:

Very gently struck
The quay night bell.

Stacking surprise after surprise, the line tumbles in its exact, diverse sonority. It is an aural image, staging blindly the indistinct peel of a bell unseen. We are immediately located in an unfolding present, a now whose now-ness is minutely deferred – a now-ness our consciousness of which lags, minutely, behind the impression.

Now with the dead
Of night and the dead
Of my life I hear
My name called from far out.

What is this ‘now’, or rather when? The only continuity is the night, dead, which bridges the little death between the stanzas. But we are elsewhere, or elsewhen, and the bell’s gentle striking has died with the birth of a new now.

***

And as for the ‘I’? ‘To “I” itself and to its punctual location […] fleeting and without dimension’ (3):

I’m come to this place
(Come to this place)
Which I’ll not pass
Though one shall pass
Wearing seemingly
This look I move as.

A dynamic of arrival motivates these lines, a continual (repetitive) coming that never stays, that fails to reinforce the presence of an ‘I’. I is, I am, left behind – by a new I, a new me, by an unknown futurity. The future leaves a touch of the present behind, to die, never to pass. ‘One shall pass’, yes, but the one is not one only: “(the masses that a ‘me’ is and the masses of ‘me’s’)” (4). ‘One’ moves as a shifting, shedding, raveling and unraveling, assortment – that only ‘look[s]’ as, that only ‘seemingly’ is, one.

The one’s name, ‘called from far out’. A summons (a ‘salut!’?), a nomination – from whom (or what, or when)? Why ‘out’, rather than ‘away’ perhaps? ‘Far out’ to sea? Yes and no. A name – called – from the outside: a sign stamped from the outside. Stamped on a slipperiness (fluid, oceanic) that can hardly adhere to itself, let alone another’s designation.

The ‘I’ only dies: it de-‘I’s, it undoes its nominal coherence with every coming, every breath. It becomes other with every summons scribbled by a writer that is and is not its I.

***

This staring second
Breaks my home away
Through always every
Night through every whisper
From the first that once
Named me to the bone.

This staring second (which?) ‘breaks’. The instant frees itself – from home, from ‘I’, from the continuity of the night – like every instant, always every instant. (Is this where poetry is, when poetry is, in such a staring second – who or what is staring, by the way, and why? – that is also an absolute, an infinite (both an ‘always every’ and a ‘once’, a ‘first’, a ‘first’ that is always first in every repetition) that breaks through all continuity, through every night, in every whisper?)

The first whisper, the first rupture, is the deepest: bone-deep. A piercing utterance from far out names to the bone: ‘I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / … pinned and wriggling’ (5). And the wriggling continues, it undermines the formulation, it frustrates the piercing name. Dying, irresistibly de-‘I’ing, the ‘I’ irrepressibly wriggles. And with it, with ‘me’, the syntax wriggles: the wriggling reverberates upon the writer, the written, the other ‘I’ that is not quite ‘I’. All is wriggling slippery (fluid, oceanic): the very writing, that piercing name, both a pin and a wriggle.

See, after the rupture of the name, we are all fluidity again:

Yet this place finds me
And forms itself again.
This present place found me.
Owls from on the land.
Gulls cry from the water.
And that wind honing
The roof-ridge is out of
Nine hours west on the main
Ground with likely a full
Gale unwinding it.

When are we here? A present grammatical tense confounded by a glance into a past passed without comment: ‘This present place found me’. Why not ‘finds me’? Perhaps we’ve left the prior line’s now – another death, another birth, acknowledged by a backwards look. ‘This present place found me.’ Why not, rather, ‘founds me’? Three verbs: to present, to place, to found. An offering, a setting back upright, an invitation to the world that forms. Gulls, owls, cry. All is swept by a shaping wind.

***

Gently the quay bell
Strikes the held air.

Strikes the held air like
Opening a door
So that all the dead
Brought to harmony
Speak out on silence.

We begin again, but this time – this beginning of time – we are different. We no longer look back; we no longer take a moment – a line, a little death – to adjust. Here and now the quay bell strikes and it strikes the totality of world it meets: it strikes the air (why held? by whom held?) allowing the dead to speak. A death knell with a difference: the quay bell brings the dead to life again.

(Eliot, again, talks of the poet’s ‘extinction of personality’, an extinction of his or her specificity before the vastness of the poetic tradition. The poet needs a sense “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (6), of how the dead comes to speak through to life.)

The open: ‘Death exists not only, then, at the moment of death: at all times we are its contemporaries. Why, therefore, can we not accede immediately to that other side, which is life itself but related otherwise, become other, the other relation? […] To accede to the other side would be thus to enter into the liberty of that which is free of limits. […] The other side, then, which Rilke also calls “the pure relation,” is the purity of the relation: the fact of being, in this relation, outside oneself, in the thing itself, and not in the representation of the thing’ (7).

A door opens and the dead speak out on silence. The bell signals an opening to the other side, it tolls the inauguration of a liberty: a relation otherwise, an other relation, to a contemporaneous death that is not merely the absence of life.

If some people write […] it is in order to give form, always anew, to this: that we communicate this dying to one another” (8).

***

(1) George Barker, “Therefore All Poems are Elegies”, Selected Poems, ed. by Robert Fraser (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. ix

(2) Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 88

(3) Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), p. 84

(4) ibid.

(5) T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/44212>

(6) Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” <http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html>

(7) Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), pp. 133-5

(8) Nancy (2013), p. 93

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