From time to time, when I’m reading for The Rialto, I come across poems that I really need to write about. Usually my long running wrestle with procrastination gets in the way, but when I wrote the recent Newsletter I found that I was writing about a poem from Issue 99 that I really like. I thought I’d share it with readers who don’t get further than the front page of the website, so here’s my close reading of Louise Watts’ poem.
I go outside at twilight in the high wind
to put the tins and plastics in the recycling bin
and think of the way that I have imagined this place –
the patio and the garden – as the setting for our meeting:
hens on the lawn and at the end of the garden
a summerhouse and you at the gate
and me, somehow casual and beautiful – and tonight
as the wind blows I see:
there are no hens. There is no summerhouse.
There is no beautiful and casual. There is no you.
I go back in and close the door. I cook dinner.
I wonder how is it possible, that I have to live here in this world?
This place of wind, without hens.
What is it that I like about these thirteen lines? The title: I like that because it draws attention (and poems are good for this) to the word ‘without’ – reminds me how important the ‘with’ bit is. And I like the fact that the word recurs towards the end of the last line, tying the poem together. I also like that the ‘out’ part is in the third word of the first line. This is not nit-picking: this poem is about an imagined idyll and its fracturing. There’s a lot of balancing and dancing going on.
I notice how the poem is also tied together by the word ‘wind’, which occurs at the beginning and the middle and the end, and by the word ‘hens’ which occurs in line 5, line 9 and line 13. And I also notice the importance of ‘in’, both as a sound in the first four lines and the last three lines (noticeably absent in the middle six lines), and as an, at least partial, antonym to ‘without’. Also important to the structure of the poem is the pause in the middle of the line (the caesura): it’s less emphatic in the opening seven lines, speeding the poem along, and then strongly present in the last four lines. The hinge of the poem, line 8, which makes the transition between anticipation and loss, is a half line.
I like how the opening line could be the start of a Romantic era poem, with its ‘twilight’ and ‘high wind’ and could be going anywhere but is in fact leading to the second line with its likeable grounding mundanity. We don’t know it but these two lines set the matter of the poem before us, the anticipation of possibilities and the ordinariness of actuality. The third line takes me again into anticipation, ‘think’, ‘imagined’, ‘this place’: and reflects on the importance of imagination in our psychology, how so much of what we do is preceded by thinking/imagining. The line rolls over into the specific ‘the patio and the garden’ and then it’s off again imagining, ‘setting’, ‘our meeting’. The next three lines are not end stopped and move with the speed of thought, or film. The language is very simple, but very evocative, ‘hens on the lawn’ and ‘summerhouse’ (that symbol of gentility, so seldom actually used). The strong resonance of ‘you at the gate’– we know quite a lot about the narrator, but nothing about ‘you’, whether imagined or real they have to be special because the narrator has created a paradise for them to come into. And I like how the word ‘casual’ is reinforced by the casualness of the preceding ‘and me, somehow’, and as well by the internal rhyme with ‘beautiful’. As I look at my screen the words ‘casual and beautiful’ stand out visually as the middle of the poem.
And then the ‘wind blows’, takes everything away with it. The ‘noes’ and the full stops thud along. Even the ‘beautiful and casual’ is robbed of its aura by being inverted. The narrator turns their back on the vision and we go back to the work of the second line, ‘I cook dinner’. And the imagination deserts the project, ‘how is it possible’. The last line is pure skill. Ruefulness, exact.
I am debating with myself as to whether I need to ‘contextualize’ this poem: and at the same time thinking that my endeavour to do this would probably be too rooted in the Western poetry context to be entirely useful. It’s hard for me to move away from the fact that Milton wrote a long poem about two people who met in a garden. Or to ignore the fact that this poem alludes to the long tradition of ‘Come live with me and be my love’ addresses (though in this case ‘you’ doesn’t turn up). Marlowe’s poem does have, in its last stanza the line about the Shepherd’s ‘Swains’ dancing in the morning for the beloved. This would have been a dance performed by young males. Or I could write about the Pastoral Tradition: I know that Vergil wrote about bees in the Georgics, but am less sure if he gave any attention to Poultry Husbandry. When did hens become important? I know that when I moved to Norfolk at the end of the sixties, to become ‘self-sufficient’, the keeping of hens was part of our vision. The word ‘gate’ has acquired large significance in the Western traditions. Both Heaven and Hell have gates, for example, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim has to pass through a Wicket Gate on his way to the path to salvation. These thoughts and ideas turn up in my mind as I consider the poem, but they may just be particular to me. You don’t need them to appreciate the poem.
In practical psychological terms this poem is an excellent example of choice, in action or otherwise, and its place in decisions. As Raymond Antrobus said in his introduction to the reading in Norwich (May 27th.,), we do have choice about continuing the dialogues in our heads (although it can frequently feel that there’s no choice). The garden was imagined: did the narrator actually invite the presence of ‘you’? Or is this ‘what always happens’? Lots of potential for ‘moving on’ in a Counselling session here. But what is star is that the poet has created this very successful poem.
You can buy issue 99 here.