Since the publication of The Wound Dresser's Dream I have moved to a small island off the Orkney mainland. It is not one of Walter de la Mare's islands lying 'beyond verification,' whose 'distance is incomputable.' But it is an offshore island all the same, and my view of what I have written is now colored by this crossing of water. As in Lepers at Dunwich from an earlier book, 'Distance is different here." I look out at the 'phrasing of spray' and hillsides scattered with neolithic tombs. As Octavio Paz says 'the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.' The Wound Dresser's Dream contains a poem called The Inland Boat. I see it now at a remove, almost as if my chosen exile were prefigured. So what else do I feel looking across the water at this latest book, and those that came before?
Firstly, the cover: Barbara Leaney's painting White Man Sleeps is strangely disquieting with its blend of the serene and the ruinous. Her half-buried Plantagenet taps into what Seamus Heaney calls 'mental fossil fuel....a cable that hums' with all the energies of memorized poetry. The Sleep Laboratory can only register this mysterious relationship between dream and fiber optics. And when I look at the book as a whole, I feel it lacks the arrowy sureness of The Ice Pilot Speaks, in which St. Brendan's monks sail through the O of the iceberg. The Wound Dresser's Dream is perhaps a book between islands.
As in earlier books, these poems go back to the source. They are water-girdled; even the inland boat moves to electrolytes in the blood, and the opening poem Fidra's Song is set not in the Northern, but the Western Isles. This desire to shape the source, this deep fetching, lets dynamics surface from water which the sun never reaches. And looking back to The Honeycomb, there is a feeling of a body of work like water, there from the beginning. Walking the Water spoke of 'the spirit sexed'; A Chistening by Snowlight holds the ceremonies of snow and black-flowing water in sacramental balance:
And the images? They do come thick and fast; sometimes imperfectly incarnate, simply vivid lantern slides. But behind them is something other—a pressure towards the minimal, the whisper of the Northern Lights, bone, silence, memory as half a light-year long. The writing is influenced by travel; Thomas Traherne seen through the vibrancy of Sri Lanka, Kabuki actors sashed with cinnabar, Keatsian moments of paragliding over the spice routes. One sense is translated into another, physical and cerebral are braided: 'What is the look of the sound?,' 'the sound is light itself.' The blind man passing La Sagrada Familia senses the hare kindle in the Field of Blood; the glass harmonica player hardly knows whether the chromatics are light or sound.
The poems in The Wound Dresser's Dream take many risks. It is easy for reviewers to bite their ankles. Despite Richard Dawkins' revelation that in the beginning was the Number, many of these poems, like those from the earlier books, draw on the imaginative truth of myth. Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Charon, Leda and the Swan, Loki, Sigurd, Isis and Osiris....it gets harder to use myths creatively, but they aren't bloodless yet! You can still steal up watersnakes holding silence in their mouths like Tiresias before the divining draught. And the impulse behind what the Ice Pilot says is still best illumined by Pavese: 'Your problem, then, is to evaluate the irrational. Your poetic problem is to evaluate it without taking away its mythical quality.'
So this is an unfashionable collection in some ways. It holds, however bleakly, to 'caritas' as the 'blood-red petal against bewilderment.' My childhood was secular; so where does it come from, this instinct for some 'beginnings of His creature,' when the Magi have their mouths frozen over? Like Stanley Spencer, I 'paint them in their redeemed state.' And lightly, lightly; like that balance held by Vermeer's woman under a sunlit window; like that bridge in Florence still rising on mortar mixed with egg whites. When I take the ferry to the Orkney mainland, I pass the island of Eynhallow with its ruined monastery. A parable island: something expressed in terms of something else. It is this, mysteriously, that I must weigh.
Looking at these poems in the sea-light I see how rapaciously eclectic some of them are. They could well jettison the academic. Notes, quotes, even questions throw up their own dry-ice. Maybe the probing intelligence should wear its seriousness with spring heels; as when the pyramics levitate, and the little foxes improvise within Christ's wounds. Traveling to Japan has shown me the art of Karumi, that lightness and sureness of touch which can express the profound. Coleridge must go scuba-diving more often.
There are pointers in the language already-Seven Thunders Utter, and Between Stations pitch it right. A simpler language for the white squalls which occur in bright sunshine. When I look out from my eyrie, I see rainbows walk the water. Just above the sea at the rainbow's foot is a HAZE. To catch that moving brightness above the known and unseen circle of the rainbow is what I am after. This search for the divining shiver, at once mysterious and accessible, informs all my work, whether I'm describing olive trees in a salt laden wind, or Joseph Knecht's ecstasy at a momentary mis-tuning of the clavichord. And the expression must be as clear as a Quaker Candlemas—given there were such a thing.
Anne Stevenson once wrote to me 'the poetry is not firstly in the words.' Here, daylight owls feather the silence; inner and outer landscapes fuse. In the beginning was the Word, and I would like to get back to the hallowing of that first poem in The Honeycomb. But it gets harder-not the listening-in, but the expressing. You are what you risk. This is the long fallow. The lambing has just begun. 'Of true Falcons gentle an Eiry is never found.' Possibly St. Francis preaching to the seals will be so complete, I shall not need to build an echo.
April 28, 1997