Poem of the week

The Black Guitar by Paul Henry

Striking an emotional chord … The Black Guitar by Paul Henry.
The late UA Fanthorpe said an interesting thing when she described Paul Henry as a poet who “gets the maximum effect from minimum language”. Her words are quoted on the back of his recent New and Selected Poems, The Brittle Sea, as well as those of Sheenagh Pugh, referring to Henry’s “musicality, his use of back-story and his ability to create the most haunting resonance”. These descriptions point to the reasons why Henry’s poems are such a pleasure to read and hear. Henry is not a minimalist poet, exactly, but there is a beautiful economy to his writing, as exemplified in this week’s poem The Black Guitar.

The Black Guitar originally published in his fifth collection, Ingrid’s Husband (Seren, 2007) is a sonnet, one of the more impressionistic of its kind. It includes lines that are barely lines – phrases on the edge of silence. Two of these fragmentary lines are set to the right of the text, reminders, perhaps, of the bilateral art of the musician.

To begin with, the territory feels fairly solid and familiar. The wardrobe-clearing might be the start of a comfortable little narrative journey into a gently poignant past. But the wardrobe conceals a further, more unsettling set of memories. The guitar is not named in the body of the poem, except in terms of the pronoun, “its” in the first quatrain and “it” in the last. There is no detailed description. The reader’s eye instead is directed to the name, “Joe”, and the “squiggled seagull or two”.

We see the name once, and then, insistently, twice (as it was written), and perhaps we imagine the childish letters aslant on the instrument’s black wooden surface, outlined in pale dust. But “Joe, Joe” is not only a visual device: it’s the beginning of an address to the child. The emotion builds.

In the next three lines the intensity comes from the moral re-focusing, the dismissal of “a man’s tears” beside the “life’s work” of a child’s name, written in dust and, on another occasion, in sand. The term, “life’s work”, ordinary enough but made striking by its context, encloses an immeasurable set of processes – the life-work of conception, birth, growth. How much has to happen mentally and physically for a child to learn to write his name? And how much for a life to make its mark in a world of dust and darkening?

The guitar, being dusty, must have already fallen into disuse when the boy wrote his inscription. Perhaps this is why the emotion is so painful. Before the solitary father unearthed the guitar, a solitary child performed the same action, signing an ownership and connection that perhaps felt tenuous.

“Two” is the essential number in the poem. It evokes separated lives, as well as the two hands that play music. That the name is written twice suggests the doubled identity one name might contain. In the ninth line, the phrase “two strings” introduces the idea of disharmony. Being out of tune, the strings’ relationship with each other is distorted.

The few end-rhymes are delicate and unforced. Particularly effective is the internal rhyme of “touched … much” in line 9, like a tentative plucking of the guitar’s strings.

The final repetition of the child’s name in line 12 marks a calming down, a turn into a more conversational register. The poem’s forestalled climax, however, is the reference to the sea and the child’s voice, memories which would be brought to life if the speaker played the instrument. A resonance so painful has to be deferred. There’s relief when the memories and their sounds are shut away, un-summoned.

I find the whole poem strangely mimetic, as if the sonnet itself had mysteriously turned into the guitar. Its sound-box is left vibrating with emotional chords that, once touched, linger a long time in the reader’s mind.

The Black Guitar

Clearing out ten years from a wardrobe
I opened its lid and saw Joe
written twice in its dust, in a child’s hand,
then a squiggled seagull or two.

                                                    Joe, Joe

a man’s tears are worth nothing,
but a child’s name in the dust, or in the sand
of a darkening beach, that’s a life’s work.

I touched two strings, to hear how much
two lives can slip out of tune

                                                then I left it,
brought down the night on it, for fear, Joe
of hearing your unbroken voice, or the sea
if I played it.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/nov/08/poem-of-the-week-paul-henry