Prac Crit

A nothing to do with God

by Caleb Klaces

Essay

by Sarah Howe

Maybe it’s because I grew up with a mother prone to spectacular conversational non-sequiturs. With a forensic fascination, I’d try to recover the occulted steps in her internal reasoning process, which could segue from ‘what’s for dinner tonight’ to ‘gun crime in Rio’ without passing Go. Whatever the root, I’ve always been susceptible to the kind of poem that travels vast distances in a single bound. There’s the expanding, digressive sort, which darts between its different subjects like a car changing lanes. And then there’s the poem divided into parts, where each section break works something like a film edit – a jump-cut, or fade to black – leaving us to ponder the shift from one scene to the next.

A poem in five unnumbered parts, ‘A nothing to do with God’ is of the latter type. By indirections it finds directions out. The poem moves like the hitchhiker of its penultimate section: catching a ride on the journeys and narratives of others, it’s borne along to a destination different to the one imagined. Equally, we might fancy the poem’s swerving movements – even down to the zigzagging of its stepped lines – resemble a sail boat tacking across the wind because it cannot sail straight into it. Like the poem itself, the ship of the final section is blown off course, washing up after a storm on an unexpected shore. If we were to wrap all this into a moral (and the poem is too beautifully understated for that) it would be, ‘Life takes unexpected turns.’ The same man who gave his early years to the priesthood will one day take his children to visit a ruined cathedral.

‘A nothing to do with God’ can be read as an essay on that unregarded phrase, ‘to do with’. It means, of course, concerning or related to, but sounds so much more down-to-earth – tentative even, like a gesture of approximation – than our more formal ways of expressing relation. What connects one thought with the next in the mind of a poet? Or in the flow of any mind? And how do those fleeting synaptic linkages compare to other sorts of connection or resemblance between things? Parents and children, past and present, vehicle and tenor: through its very structure, the poem explores these relationships and others. What on earth connects the poet’s father to the sixteenth-century Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius? Beyond setting their stories in implicit dialogue, the poem is delicately terse on this point. We are on our own.

We begin with a conversation at a bus stop. Actually, we begin with a date, ‘1996’. It lends the incident the frisson of fact (‘this really happened’), while setting the tone for a poem at pains to locate us precisely in time, even as the decades and centuries swim by. Other timestamps include ‘1960’, ‘1564’ and ‘the month of October’. The next temporal marker we meet, ‘the last, non-uniform, day of term’, places this opening scene in the poet’s teens. About the same age as Klaces, I remember the Kappa tracksuits. There’s a lot going on here, the texture of the observation almost novelistic. We feel the other boy’s swagger in his flash new tracksuit. We don’t get access to the speaker’s own thoughts or feelings that morning, but find ourselves reading them into the white space of the section break, the silence where his response should appear. What I get is radiating teenage embarrassment at the mention of his father, ‘a pope or something’ – a faintly laughable figure from a barely heard-of planet. And underneath the embarrassment, maybe a little protectiveness too.

The next section throws us in in medias res: ‘I liked the idea of the Sistine Chapel…’ Scrabbling to find our feet, we scan for any link to what’s gone before: popes? Which pope commissioned the Sistine ceiling? The first of the poem’s time jumps, this particular break is wonderfully mimetic of the way memory works: how scenes and associations swim up unbidden, before the motivating connection becomes apparent – if it ever does. The adult speaker recalls the Sistine Chapel’s appeal to his childhood self: ‘it had been larger / than Michelangelo’s life. Larger than / a football pitch.’ Like the poem’s own journeys through geography and memory, these musings blur space and time, as if a ‘life’ might be measured in yards not years. The passage brings into focus the poem’s general preoccupation with quantifying things. How much is nothing?

The context of these reveries, we discover, is a family daytrip to the old Coventry Cathedral. Destroyed by German bombing in 1940, its ruins became the emblematic image of a raid that devastated the city. That night passed into British folk legend because of the impossible bind it presented to Churchill, who had to choose (so the story goes) whether or not to send in the RAF. Since intelligence about the attack came from the Allies’ recent cracking of the Enigma codes, acting against the Luftwaffe would have alerted the Nazis to its source. And so Churchill sacrificed Coventry. It’s an episode that hangs just behind a poem with an avowed interest in whether people would act differently if they had some (Godlike?) intimation of what the future held: ‘Would he still have become a priest, / and then not one […]?’ Although in the case of the speaker’s father and his waylaid notebooks, the question is less one of foreknowledge than of self-knowledge.

The speaker is younger now than in the opening stanza, young enough to kick his ‘sister / under the train table’ and be told off for it: ‘And what an idea / that a day could be ruined.’ What the adult speaker recalls is not his chagrin at the rebuke (we can almost hear it, You’ve ruined the day!), but a detached fascination at the linguistic curiosity it throws up, picked out in italics. The word ‘ruined’, when attached to their daytrip, is made uncanny by the fact that the family has spent the morning standing inside an actual ruin. The boy – a future poet, after all – feels at that moment a disorientating slippage between the metaphorical and the real. The following lines pick up this idea:

                               In the new one

          there is a photograph of two charred beams
that fell in such a way as to resemble a crucifix.
          And there is the crucifix hung on the wall
like one charred beam fallen on another.

In a sort of tautologous mirroring, the metaphor is turned first one way, then back round the other: a reversal I experience with a peculiar, dizzying sensation, like a word being emptied of meaning. A similar moment occurs later when the children drop ‘coins / […] in the model of the cathedral / inside the cathedral’. The floor falls away and we find ourselves lost in a mise en abyme of infinite reflections. The beams-as-crucifix, crucifix-as-beams hold out two ways of interpreting the world: one that would see in them a sign of God’s guiding providence, his signature in events; another that would see only serendipitous accident, a human desire to draw meaning out of noise.

The next stanza gives the poem its title, and also marks its quiet crisis:

          My father said nothing to do with God
but looked intently towards nothing in particular
          above the altar

The lineation is working hard here. The space at the left and right margins seems all of a sudden especially airy, as if to lend the repeated ‘nothing’ a palpable presence. It’s an effect underscored by the poem’s title, whose indefinite article turns ‘nothing’, paradoxically, into something. It’s a beautiful touch, the mismatch here between the apparent purposiveness of the father’s gaze (‘looked intently’) and the absentminded ‘nothing in particular’ at which it’s directed. In that space, behind his abstracted expression, a tiny psychological drama unfolds – or does it? – of a man inwardly confronting the absence where his calling used to be. A final note on the title: to want ‘nothing to do with’ someone/something is to disavow any contact or relationship with them/it.

The break between this section and the next is a leap of faith. (That phrase always makes me think of the bit in The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones steps out onto the invisible bridge…) I love chutzpah of it, this magisterial redirection of our attention: ‘Not yet thirty and already a star, Andreas Vesalius / renounced the study of anatomy.’ Trust me, the poet says. Whatever the underlying link – we sense it has something to do with renounced vocations never truly left behind – I love its blind intuition, its evasion of conventional logic. Adapting the words of his Letter on the China Root (1546), the stanza shifts seamlessly into an ‘I’ who is Vesalius himself, before switching back to the third person. The letter presents the self-portrait of a slightly obsessive, morally dubious character who, despite himself, just can’t stop inspecting corpses. Once an anatomist… Vesalius is chiefly remembered for his ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), first published in 1543. Its engraved plates present muscled human figures flayed of their skin, or reduced to skeletons and unpacked organs, who stand in incongruously tranquil allegorical poses before a landscape backdrop. Vesalius was circumspect, in his writings, about not being seen to question Church doctrine. He remained notably silent about the relationship between the dissected bodies on his slab and the immortal soul.

As they criss-cross centuries and continents, the poem’s sections shift between different registers of human experience. Faced with their interleaving of personal memory and history, we start to query the distance between these two versions of the past. How does one eventually become the other? It’s a question that crystallises around the father’s mislaid journals, containing their lost self-portrait of a youth who might have seen his future differently, if he’d been able to read their record back. Two poems on in Bottled Air (2013), the book from which this poem comes, we learn that the speaker’s father is himself a poet, and that his remaining diaries have been collected in the local library: ‘because the friendly archivist was convinced // that the record of this curate turned poet could be history / given the chance’ (‘My Line’). ‘What will remain of us?’ is one of Bottled Air’s presiding questions. How might art create something ‘larger’ than the span of an individual life? And what is lost in the process?

In the final sections, the stories of the speaker’s father and Vesalius continue to run tenuously in parallel: both make trips to the Holy Land; both find themselves stranded on their return. The analogy’s possible speciousness may well be the point, founded as it seems to be on the chance collision, in the poet’s mind, of two elements seeded in the opening conversation at the bus stop: the friend who asked the irreverent question about his father’s religious vocation happened that morning to be wearing a tracksuit purchased in Zante, a.k.a. Zakynthos, the Mediterranean island where Vesalius was shipwrecked. This synergy is only revealed in the fifth and final section, as we circle back round to Zante: the recurrence of this marginal detail suddenly takes on a mysterious significance; or is it just a ghost of pattern within the noise? It’s a gesture towards closure – Yeats’s notion that ‘a poem comes right with a click like a closing box’ – that offers no closure at all. The poem’s strands are all tied up, while left flapping loose.

I love the little coda about how the historical record fails us in practically every respect – its shrug of the shoulders. And the rueful laugh (ironic in the Alanis Morissette sense) at Zante’s being the very island ‘on which the tar was dredged / that failed to protect the ship’. The poem’s diminuendo ending reminds me of the shaggy dog story: that species of joke where all the prolonged and feverish build-up fizzles out in a punchline that deliberately isn’t a punchline. Hey, at least we know it happened in October.

A nothing to do with God

by Caleb Klaces

1996, at the bus stop, my friend, mouth brown with Marmite
          and the paler brown of nicotine,
dressed up for the last, non-uniform, day of term
          in a Kappa tracksuit brought back from Zante,
electric blue with silver trim, asked hadn’t my dad once
          been a pope or something?

*

I liked the idea of the Sistine Chapel, that it had been larger
          than Michelangelo’s life. Larger than
a football pitch. Too large to take in? I asked my father,
          wanting him to nod his head solemnly.
It’s still a general rule, that things should be larger
          than they are here, him older then

than he is now. And what an idea
          that a day could be ruined. The morning was still
as it had been before I kicked my sister
          under the train table coming home
from the old bombed Coventry Cathedral. In the new one

          there is a photograph of two charred beams
that fell in such a way as to resemble a crucifix.
          And there is the crucifix hung on the wall
like one charred beam fallen on another.

          My father said nothing to do with God
but looked intently towards nothing in particular
          above the altar as he gave us coins
to drop in the model of the cathedral
          inside the cathedral.

*

Not yet thirty and already a star, Andreas Vesalius
          renounced the study of anatomy.
No longer should I willingly spend long hours
          in the Cemetery of the Innocents
turning over bones, nor to Montfaucon to look at bones.
          Nor should I care to be locked out of Louvain
so that I might take away bones from the gibbet.

          But he could not entirely stop
and never failed to visit any nearby medical school,
          nor to inspect the bodies on the battlefield.

*

My father hitch-hiked to Israel in 1960
          and took notes. As the train pulled out
of the station, he realised that his bag was gone.
          Would he still have become a priest,
and then not one, he asks me, if he had returned
          from Israel and Naples and Belgrade
with his notebooks – if he had
          had, after repatriation from Rotterdam
by boat, his own account of himself?

*

          Bound for Venice, after his trip
to the Holy Land, the reasons for which are lost,
          in 1564, a storm took apart his boat
and with its remains Vesalius was washed up on Zakynthos,
          the island on which the tar was dredged
that failed to protect the ship, and which is known now
          by British tourists as Zante.

Where precisely he landed is not known, nor do we know
          where he was buried, by whom.
There seems little doubt, at least,
          that this was in the month of October.

From Bottled Air (Eyewear, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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