Poem of the week

Pier by Vona Groarke

Filled with vitality and physical exuberance, this week’s bank holiday choice is that rare thing: a happy poem

Pier in Southwold

“Gulp cloud; / fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa … “

This week’s choice, “Pier”, by one of today’s most interesting younger Irish poets, Vona Groarke, seems to be that comparatively rare thing: a happy poem. It centres on the thrill, in the author’s words, of “jumping into the sea from a high fishing pier.”

It might stir your own nostalgia for childhood and teenage derring-do, but if you’re lucky – and wise – you won’t have outgrown such experiences, nor save them only for bank holidays. “Pier” isn’t designed to deliver a message, but it nevertheless says something about the nature of the good and happy life. Our muscles, extensions of our minds, have “a need for joy”. Fascism exploits that fact, as regretted in the Auden sonnet which provides the poem’s epigraph. But the “sport” here has a different goal. It’s private and it’s fun; an act not of conformity but rebellion.

Vona Groarke was born in Edgeworthstown in the Irish Midlands, but, as she says in this too-brief interview, she thinks of the west of Ireland as her home. “Pier”, from her 2009 collection, Spindrift, is set in Spiddal in County Galway. Initially, what’s noticeable is that there’s no direct first-person narrative. This emphasis on active verbs turns out to be an excellent device, recreating how it feels to be fully absorbed in physical activity, the mind, that often unwieldy “organ”, streamlined into unity with the body. The body of the poem – its rhythms and syntax – is not a container, but a sinewy consciousness.

The poem begins with a series of signposts or instructions. The abbreviated style helps focus process and movement. The speaker seems to be doing something she’s done before – remembering, as well as reporting, a familiar sequence as she moves steadily to her goal. Each point of the landscape has its associated physical accompaniment. Past, present and future seem uncannily fused.

The noun “snout” suggests the shape of the land, and maybe the speaker’s orientation: the nose leads when you are following an instinct. It’s a nice, gristly, Germanic word, contrasting with the limitless space evoked by the latinate “America”. The diction is taut and spare: “flip-flop over/ tarmac” economises, possibly, by compressing foot-wear into verb-of-motion; “exchange the weather” wastes no time on chit-chat. Movement and purpose, are all outward-directed, a brisk negotiation with solid facts such as the “gangplank rooted barge”. The pier is seen as a workaday place, without charm or grandeur.

There’s a sense of arrival in line seven, but only a moment’s hesitation, enacted by the caesura, the full-stop, after “up to the ridge”. There’s no trembling on the brink. “And then let fly,” the poem commands. Airborne now, it opens up imaginatively with the idea of “blue nets” (not literal fishing-nets, I think, but impressions of the sky and the light-patterned water below). Altitude and vastness are conveyed by the dizzy, fantastical instructions to “gulp cloud” and “fling a jet-trail around your neck like a feather boa.”

A “you” has entered the poem, and with it a stronger mood of self-determination. No, the poem’s not simply about “fun”. The physical commands hint at a spiritual exercise. When the poet says “Enter the tide as though it were nothing, /really nothing, to do with you” the command is to deny encroaching consciousness. The sea-leaper has to work at her prophylaxis. If you “go with the flow” the fear recedes; the danger itself is reduced.

For the poet, this may also sound a reminder to beware the tense search for epiphany. How often, if you write poetry, or even fiction, do you find yourself ultimately writing up those very aspects of an experience which you didn’t record eagerly in your mental (or actual) notebook? Writers learn to duck in and out of manipulative states of mind – athletes, too, perhaps? But this is not a poem about the virtue of being passive. It’s more about achieving the active-passive balance.

As the narrative develops, so does the willed action. There is an almost violent wrestle with the water, which has to be “slit” and “dragged” open for the jumper to surface and breathe again. “You” need to “kick back”, escape from the tide’s “coiled ropes” and then “Haul yourself up into August”. This is the joyous free-fall in reverse, an ascent that demands deliberate hard work, fighting water and gravity to make the wide sky visible again, and the next jump possible. Yes, of course, there must be another jump! And this time, the speaker will set herself a bigger challenge.

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

“Pier” is reproduced here by kind permission of the author and Gallery Press. Enjoy – but if you’re inspired to jump into the sea from a height, please do it with due care.

Pier by Vona Groarke

Speak to our muscles of a need for joy

                      • W H Auden, “Sonnets from China” (XVII)

Left at the lodge and park, snout to America.

Strip to togs, a shouldered towel, flip-flop over

the tarmac past the gangplanked rooted barge,

two upended rowboats and trawlers biding time.

Nod to a fisherman propped on a bollard,

exchange the weather, climb the final steps

up to the ridge. And then let fly. Push wide,

push up your knees so the blue nets hold you,

wide-open, that extra beat. Gulp cloud;

fling a jet-trail round your neck like a feather boa,

toss every bone and sinew to the plunge.

Enter the tide as if it were nothing,

really nothing, to do with you. Kick back.

Release your ankles from its coiled ropes;

slit water, drag it open, catch your breath.

Haul yourself up into August. Do it over,

raucously. Head first. This time, shout.

__________

Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/aug/30/poetry

 

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