The Metaphysics of Memory

J. C. Hall, Long Shadows, Poems 1938-2002 (Shoestring Press 2003, ISBN 1 899549 76 5, 8.95);
Ian Caws, Taro Fair (Shoestring Press 2003, ISBN 1 899549 80 3, 7.50)

J. C. Hall, who in this selection celebrates over sixty years of poetic activity, is unapologetically in the romantic tradition. One of the earliest pieces in the volume (simply entitled "The Poem") asserts a Coleridgian confidence is the power of the imagination to create "a notion filling space where nothing was". Coleridge and Yeats are named presences in "The Vigil", in which the poet, watching over his sleeping child, remembers how they recorded similar experiences of fatherhood:

Both, who such simple grace esteemed,
Throw a loose coverlet of rhyme
Across this mortal-breathing form
Who stamps my image on to time.
Genes and words are two different ways of stamping an image, and time is what many of these poems are concerned with. In one of the most intensely realised, "The Eye", a young boy opens a curtain and looks out into a garden at night, where "six Bramleys, drenched in blossom, smudge the gloom" not realising that
One night, one spring, a memory will be born
Out of the latest death and all come back
Astonishing as a dream - brook, bank and lawn,
Even the thick
Effluvium of the may - clear as the dawn
He strains for now, this chilling on his cheek.
Several poems are about the metaphysics of memory. In the latest (dated June 2002), an old man sees a child in a garden and has a sudden sense of himself seventy years earlier staring back out of the child's eyes.
That child is me, I thought, and years
Spooled back through love, war, hopes betrayed
To that pure moment. Might-have-beens
Played in the sunlight undismayed.
His style has remained essentially the same from the first poem in 1938 to this. There are no sudden growth spurts or discontinuities, but some of the later poems, such as "Curriculum Vitae" do have a lighter, more casual touch:
'Wake up, Hall! There'll be plenty of time
After this lesson for your poetry stuff.'
Sniggerings from the back. An urgent rhyme
Jumps on my mind and drives old Euclid off...
Afterwards the poet overhears the teacher telling his wife that young Hall is "still scribbling" and more than half a century later, with admirable dedication, he doesn't seem to have stopped.

While Hall looks to the romantics for inspiration, Ian Caws, who is also obsessed by time and memory, looks more to the seventeenth century mystics. "Love and eternity, that's all there is" is a line put into the mouth of one of his characters who disappeared, apparently to sea, apparently in pursuit of a lost woman. I state the content tentatively, since a poem by Caws is like a late Turner, so full of movement and shimmering light that it isn't always easy to see what's going on.

Like Hall, Caws presents his poems in tight stanza forms, but in his case the expectations aroused by the shape on the page are often subverted by the detailed execution. His rhymes are seldom full and their organisation is often syllabic. In the opening poem, visual indentation draws attention to the fact that two lines have only eight syllables while the others have ten; but rhythmically they vibrate uneasily between tetrameter and trimeter:

Pausing, as if there were something to find,
--I take sounds playing in my head
--And return to the badger sett,
Its notation of debris on the ground.
The qualification in the first line is typical. Many of the poems have a family resemblance. A scene is sketched in. A question is posed. Before it is answered a different question follows, and the scene often unravels into a general bewilderment. Some of them seem to be about the difficulty of knowing what question to pose in the first place. They have the ambiguity of conversations overheard out of context, the intensity of urgent half-remembered dreams.
This is not where the narrative began...

--All around, circumstance
Climbed like heat from a tarred road...

But when I can't remember and recall
Is only a change of temperature...

There are times I would stay, when the music
Is not the only thing being transposed...

--Today, that still may be enough
----Now that time has lost its
Memory and wanders beyond our call...

These are quotations from five poems, but some whole ones are not much easier to paraphrase than if these extracts were to be read as a continuous stanza. The vivid original image in the second quotation and the ambiguous syntax in the third (is the word "recall" a noun or a verb?) also illustrate some of Caws' notable characteristics.

In "Feather" a man walking "the last mile" of a journey finds a seagull feather which "stirred the days when they had been together".

But a feather, as now, was all he kept,
Left it on the piano with a note.
He continued his journey while they slept...
The focus in space and time shifts between a short journey taking hours to complete and a long one (from "the valley's other end") taking years.

The leaps and juxtapositions in these poems appear to have been introduced out of a sense that truth is essentially non-verbal, that words can at best only hint at it. "Note to a Publisher" describes a moment of revelation in which "what was left was an almost / sacramental silence no words came near."

While recognising a strong talent at work, I sometimes found this style too much like hard work. Amid the indirection, ambiguity and fractured narrative, I yearned for something that was hard-edged and sharply focused.

© Brian Fewster,
Staple, 2003

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