Poem of the week

A Fire Shared by Peter Didsbury

A repeated refrain adds pragmatism to a poem on assimilation, grief and human understanding, making it a truly moving read

Hall fireplace 

The solace of sharing …

This week’s poem, A Fire Shared by Peter Didsbury, echoes the astute old proverb, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. The poem’s variable refrain gives it a pragmatic, down-to-earth twist: “A fire shared is a fire cheaper.” Those words of indisputable economic sense also touch an emotional chord, almost a chord of longing for a harsher but (sometimes) humanly warmer age.
Closing the first and shortest stanza, they draw us into the hearthside of the poem.

A Fire Shared is set in Didsbury’s hometown, Hull, where many Irish immigrants arrived during the 19th century. The trouble shared by the two figures, one English and the other Irish, is not only poverty, but one of the diseases of poverty, cholera. In an essay that accompanied the poem’s first publication in Poetry Ireland ’78, Didsbury notes that, in Hull during the summer epidemic of 1849, “upwards of 2,000 people perished in three months …” He quotes a report by a clergyman of the time, describing how the Irish women would fling themselves on to the graves and “howl out, in their native tongue, the ‘death wail'”. The echo of this keen (Irish – “caoine”), softened by the passage of time and the sharing of friendship, can perhaps be picked up in the cadences of the poem.

The linguistic process that is detailed foreshadows the eventual loss of a language. The Irishwoman’s initial estrangement from English has been modified … “a fire shared is a fine instructive tutor”. She will become fluent in English and, implicitly, the dominant language will obliterate her own. But at this early stage of assimilation, the learning is two-way, and the English speaker seems satisfied to have picked up some knowledge of Irish in return.

In sharing languages, the speaker and the Irishwoman have also shared their local myths, which relate to the snatching of children, and are therefore linked to cholera. It is this idea of linguistic and cultural sharing that forms a utopian political dimension for the poem. If only new languages and customs could become naturalised in the existent culture, and not subsumed by it.

The narrator is most probably a woman. But the poem also works if the speaker is understood to be male – perhaps a clergyman or teacher who has fallen on hard times and seen his own family devastated. Great loss erases social distinctions and, in such circumstances, a poor man could sit down unremarked at a poor woman’s hearth and console himself with the faintly scholarly pleasures of exchanging words and folk tales. Does the idea of a man going to a woman’s room (and she going to his, as the last stanza tells us) simply to share the fire and conversation change the poem? Perhaps it then becomes a chaste love poem, one that might conjure a more complicated backstory than if the friends were two women.

Whoever the speaker is, male or female, fishwife or schoolmaster, there is nothing literary in the voice. The language, with its unforced touches of dialect, is beautifully plain. The inversion of the opening sentence (“This evening I have spent / In the Irishwoman’s room”) surprises us into paying attention. Does it have a faint Hibernian-English flavour? And what about “but now it is fitting / that one of them bides cold”? That fine, sturdy verb, “bides” – as in “bides cold” – belongs to Old English, of course (“abidan”). These little quirks of idiom not only give the poem force and freshness, they seem to suggest the assimilations that the speakers are already sharing.

The narrative moves forward cumulatively, almost like a folk tale itself, quietly building up the background detail. It’s hard not to seem over-expository when imparting information in a monologue. This poem never seems so. Description is minimal but essential. “Dark flagged yards” evokes an entire neighbourhood; the isolated words, “sorrow”, “cholera”, “children”, give us the whole emotional and narrative core. So we discover that these two people have met unknowingly before, at the graveside, where they expressed their grief in such different ways that they did not realise that it was essentially the same grief.

Shakespeare’s “Sweet are the uses of adversity” is another adage the poem calls to mind. It’s the characters who make this sweetness possible. We know they have somehow learned to be generous, patient and unaffected with each another. We can almost hear them, muttering quietly like the fire.

Didsbury is a writer whose historical imagination and linguistic awareness illuminate a poetry of unusual reach and resonance. He is often a poet of borders – between lyric and narrative, comedy and tragedy, fantastic and realistic. His latest collection is Scenes from a Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems. A Fire Shared is reprinted in Old City, New Rumours, published by Five Leaves Press.

A Fire Shared

This evening I have spent
in the Irishwoman’s room.
A fire shared is a fire cheaper.

A twelvemonth since
I knew her not at all.
Our hearths were crowded then
but now it is fitting
that one of them bides cold.
A fire shared is a fire cheaper by far.

She has enough English now
for January tales
of our slavering bargeist
which stalks these dark flagged yards
intent on the taking of children.
She would not have understood a year ago.

A year ago her English was just enough
for blessing or cursing,
to ask the price of bread
or direction to a pump.
But now a fire shared
is a fine instructive tutor.

She has enough English now
to match my bargeists and goblins
with pookas and suchlike,
and I find I have learned what these are,
from many a night
spent sharing and cheapening fire.

A twelvemonth ago I would not have known
the Irish for ‘sorrow’, ‘cholera’, ‘children’,
or who stood by me at the same wide grave-mouth
as we wept after each of our fashions.
But now I know these things,
which are things I have learned
in the school of the ruined hearth,
which is held in both our rooms,
where a fire shared
is the cheapest fire of all.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jun/28/poem-week-fire-shared-didsbury