Leon Battista Alberti, the celebrated quattrocento art theorist, opened his treatise On Sculpture by musing how primaeval art had probably originated in mankind’s habit of spotting accidental resemblances between things – the same mechanism of the imagination by which we see a cloud shaped like a whale, or a face in a Rorshach blot. These proto-artists, wrote Alberti, would sometimes stumble across tree trunks, clods of earth and the like, and see there some outline familiar to them from the natural world. By adding a bit of clay here, chipping away some wood there, they were able to perfect that chance resemblance. And so sculpture was born.
Some similar mechanism is at work, I think, in ‘The Catch’ – this beguiling fable of accident and survival, which lingered in my mind after reading James Goodman’s first collection, Claytown (Salt, 2011). The poem is beguiling in both senses – charming and also deluding – leading us as readers through the same series of perceptual errors, uncertainties, incredulities, experienced by the fishermen as they trawl their breathing flotsam. I’m of course making a meal of something that slips by effortlessly in the first tercet:
One of them spotted a broken gannet
on the upslip of a wave. They sculled over
and saw it was a man
At the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus famously talks about the tricks ‘strong imagination’ plays on us, poking fun at the way, in the darkness of night, a fearful eye will mistake a bush for a bear. (Of course, the joke turns out to be on him.) Such are the tricks that distance and sea mist play, in ‘The Catch’, on the eye and the imagination – like the way sailors once upon a time saw dugongs crouched on distant shores and thought they were mermaids. Before our (newly fallible) eyes, in Goodman’s poem, a broken gannet transforms into a man. Incidentally, the way our focalised perspective alters as the boat draws closer – as we zoom in on that spot – is captured beautifully by the difference of scale between bird and human.
This moment begins to suggest some of the complex ways in which the poem owns its title. There’s something lightly comic in the way this particular boat’s ‘catch’ turns out to refer to practically anything but fish. The first thing to be ‘caught’ is the roving eye of one of the boatmen. As they ‘scull’ over to that uncertain shape, we might recall that, in rowing, the ‘catch’ is the first tug of water as an oar begins its stroke. And then as those opening lines make our mind’s eye snag first on the gannet, then readjust its perceptions, the word ‘catch’ reveals another of its guises – a hidden trick, the snag in the plan (where’s the catch?).
I spent a happy ten minutes with the online OED this morning: ‘catch’ is distantly related to the French word chasser (to chase, hunt) and, further back, to the Latin captare (to seize, lie in wait for). This etymological stroll helped clarify in my mind how this poem surreally blurs one kind of catch – the netted fish – into another – the deer hunter’s chase; except that luckily for the roe buck, they’re after a very different kind of quarry. Part of me also wanted to detect in the communal storytelling at the poem’s end – the way the men take turns to recount the story so far – a trace of ‘catch’ in the musical sense of a ‘round’, each singer catching up the melody of the previous one; though I fear that might be one critical ingenuity too far.
When I first encountered this poem, it made me think of Robin Robertson, but I wasn’t quite sure why – something about its disconcertingly vast seascape (‘full two miles offshore’) and the way that inhuman element dwarfs men and animals alike. In Robertson’s latest collection, The Wrecking Light, a poem called ‘Law of the Island’ tells of how a man – we are not let in on the nature of his crime, if any – is tied by his fellows to a raft so that only his face is left bobbing above the sea’s surface. His punishers then fasten two mackerel over his eyes, and wait ‘for a gannet / to read that flex of silver / from a hundred feet up, / close its wings / and plummet-dive’. The poem is typical of Robertson’s poetic vision in the way it overlaps man’s (judicial) cruelty with the indifference of the natural world. Goodman’s poem represents the other face of this particular coin: a story of pity rather than violence, of a world where things like kindness and miraculous escape are possible.
But I later realised there’s another reason I had thought of Robertson, since ‘The Catch’ shares something of his interest in a particular kind of ‘metamorphic’ imagination. Robertson’s poetic metamorphoses flow more or less directly from Ovid – Actaeon transformed into a deer and left to flee his own hounds – but mingle that Classical inheritance with creatures like the selkies – shape-changers that are men on land but seals in water – from Celtic folklore. In Goodman case, the various implied transformations in ‘The Catch’ – from gannet, to man, to archaeopteryx, to bounding deer – are, intriguingly, a product of perception rather than divine intervention. In the open sea’s hazy world of mist and spray, it’s no longer quite clear what’s real and what’s a metaphor:
frozen in a storm
of wax, with eagle feathers struck about him
and his arms and legs angled in fright
so he looked like an archaeopteryx,
flawed and ancient. They pulled alongside
and cracked open the wax to let him breathe
and the weight of air rushed into his lungs.
‘[F]rozen in a storm / of wax’ is (at least it seems so at first) this very plain poem’s first departure into metaphor – does the perception belong to the poem’s ‘narrator’ or to the astonished seamen? The homeliness of wax – spluttered, say, off an evening candle – rings true with the fishermen’s point of view (it’s something they would know), while neatly capturing the paradox of something still yet moving, potentially warm with life yet ‘frozen’ and stiff in the world of the drowned. The archaeopteryx simile is perhaps more of a stretch, but deliberately so. (Though why I instinctively feel these fishermen would be less acquainted with that iconic image from modern childhood’s dinosaur books is perhaps a salient question in this poem’s space, where ‘myth’ and ‘realism’ collide.)
The simile’s out-of-placeness is the poem’s whole point. The visual comparison is brilliantly gauged – we see the floating man’s splayed limbs, his body’s white penumbra of surf, in the archaeopteryx fossil’s flattened silhouette, whose wings are a haloed impression in rock. But the simile is also a window onto another world, another time – the dry subtropical Jurassic of those proto-birds – as though the half-drowned man were equally a relic, a throwback, ‘flawed and ancient’. (It pleased me, incidentally, to discover from my OED session that a ‘flaw’ can also mean a sudden squall of rough wind – as in ‘It blew‥.not only by Squals and sudden Flaws, but a settled terrible Tempest’ [Defoe, New Voyage Round the World]. Though doubtless this nautical inflection would be as much of a surprise to Goodman as it was to me.) The point here is that man and roebuck are land creatures, just as misplaced in this ocean scene as the archaeopteryx’s traces are in our age. Important too, I think, is the fact that archaeopteryx is an example – perhaps the example – of an animal in transition: as if it were possible to be ‘caught in the act’ of the metamorphosis we’ve learned to call evolution. Dinosaur morphs into bird, as broken gannet morphs into bird-man.
But back to the wax, which is the crucial clue as to what this poem is doing. It comes back a second time – they ‘cracked open the wax to let him breathe’ – and this time its metaphorical status is even less secure. Somehow the perception of metaphorical resemblance – a foaming wave looks a bit like wax – has intruded into the poem’s reality. It gives rise to that startling image of the rescued man as mummified in wax, his revival as the cracking open of that flexible shell (like splitting a rock to uncover a fossil?). Something is up: by analogy with Alberti’s tale of the origins of sculpture, could we be dealing here with the origins of metaphor? Perhaps this will sound overblown, but I am genuinely interested in how that slippage at the poem’s start – an eye’s confusion, mistaking one thing for another – becomes intertwined later on with the workings of metaphor, as though metaphor-making were, at base, nothing other than a kind of inspired perceptual error. In a parallel aetiology to Alberti’s, could metaphor have begun in the kind of visual glitch, hardwired into humans’ perceptual apparatus, that makes us look at a bush in the dark and see a bear instead?
Metaphor, metamorphosis. Ovid’s shade is here too, of course, hovering in the wings of ‘The Catch’. I’ve been working up to it, because it wasn’t actually an active component of my early readings of the poem, which took the ‘storm of wax’ and ‘eagle feathers’ as figurative elements in the scene, not quite making the associative leap. (I would be most interested to hear from James whether the Ovidian connection was the poem’s starting point, or if it emerged more slowly through revision.) For this wax-cased man, ‘with eagle feathers struck about him’, is another Icarus: now ‘frozen’ in water, where before the sun’s heat had been his undoing. I think it’s a testament to the poem’s lightness of touch that I didn’t consciously detect his presence until after a few re-readings. Those ‘eagle’ feathers are a telltale sign of something off in this world of gannets. And with Icarus in mind, it’s hard too not to see ‘stuck’ in ‘struck’ – a father moulding the pinion-holding wax to his son’s back – as though the word we get in the poem were an apt mishearing of the original myth. In this way, Goodman’s poem reveals its colours as a canny, and moving, literary postscript: the ‘expensive delicate ship’ of Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ sails calmly by, leaving a much humbler craft to pick up the amazing, unfledged, fallen man.
What this mythic antecedent really makes me realise though, is how diminished this poem would be by the absence of the roe buck at the end – that wonderful image of it springing off from the beach ‘as if nothing had happened’. The deer, seemingly so non-human in apparent unconcern, carrying on with life as though oblivious of near-disaster, is a kind of jokey yet poignant rejoinder to Auden’s ever-present ‘someone else’ – stood by by as suffering happens, ‘eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. ‘The Catch’ remaps Auden’s triangulation of suffering and indifference in a kinder direction. But for me the real ‘catch’, the hidden pivot, in this poem is the tenth line: ‘In the boat, they listened to his story.’ The course of the narration leaves the man’s story tantalisingly concealed from us (where’s the catch?), whether it be a tale of Cretan escape, or some more pedestrian explanation for his strange, inhospitable whereabouts. For the reader, he will remain as mute and mysterious on that subject as his alter-ego, the deer.
[This essay was first published on 11 March 2012, originally appearing in an earlier incarnation of Prac Crit.]
What follows is a conversation between myself and Kate Potts about her poem ‘Stray Dog’, part of a new series she’s been working on since the publication of her first book. We met a few weeks ago, first in a King’s Cross cafe and then back at mine after we realized my freshly unwrapped dictaphone wa ...
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