Prac Crit

Principalities, Dominions

by Gwyneth Lewis

Interview

by Dai George

Gwyneth Lewis is a meticulous poet but a visionary one. Should there be a ‘but’ in that sentence? You’d hope not, though unfortunately the two qualities seem to have become divorced in my mind. With her fondness for sequences and rhyme, an omnivorous researcher’s eye, and source material ranging from the Bible to contemporary physics, Lewis writes poetry rooted in authority. Yet those roots are always branching into new territory, often somewhere troubled or strange. In Sparrow Tree, her eighth and most recent collection, the title of a sequence called ‘Quilting for Childless Women’ captures something of the tension in her work. Quilting suggests a homely enterprise, a craft passed down through generations, while childlessness guides us down a rueful or proud dead end – the pattern pulls up short. When the next sequence in the book is called ‘How to Knit a Poem’, we know better than to expect a cutesy arts-and-crafts homily.

As teenagers, whenever my friends and I piled into a car to mooch around the gentrified chain paradise of Cardiff Bay, we first had to pass a poem written by Gwyneth Lewis. Emblazoned in six-foot stained-glass letters on the side of the Wales Millennium Centre, that poem boils down to two lines spanning just thirteen words, split bilingually: ‘Creu Gwir fel Gwydr o Ffwrnais Awen’ (translated by Lewis as ‘Creating truth like glass from inspiration’s furnace’), and its English partner, ‘In these Stones Horizons Sing’. As the first National Poet of Wales (from 2005-6), she’s a dab hand at this type of inclusive public verse, and can as easily turn her talents to radio broadcasts and libretti. But it’s her work in pared-down lyric forms that most beguiles me – the way she crafts a voice of humour and melancholic intimacy, while deflecting attention from its confessional pose.

We met for the interview at Gwyneth’s house, on the eve of the US election. Trump was heavy in the air – even in the east-Cardiff suburbs of Penylan – but for one more day at least he could be ignored, dispelled, put in his proper place with an hour spent talking about that most useless and vital thing of all, a poem. Gwyneth welcomed me into her study, a writer’s lair par excellence whose walls are stitched together with a lifetime’s reading. She’d been working that week on new translations of the great 6th-century Welsh poet Taliesin, in collaboration with Rowan Williams, and her drafts and research lay at the ready. Right now, her own writing in English stands at that happy crossroads between collections, when the book is shaping up and could still go anywhere – as good a time as any to drop in to hear the story behind one of her key new poems, ‘Principalities, Dominions’.

DG

We should start by looking at the allusion at the very heart of the poem. Some poems are allusive by chance or in a more covert way, but this puts it front and centre. I’d love to hear about what Emily Dickinson’s fly was doing buzzing round your brain as this poem emerged.

GL

Well, that fly had been in my brain for a long time. Oddly enough, I was given the Emily Dickinson poem [‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –’] by our Prac Crit tutor, Cathy Wheeler, as one of the early exercises we had to do at Cambridge, I think in our first term – and I just went, ‘What?!’ It was as if the world suddenly went faster. I had no idea that poetry could be like that. I knew nothing about Emily Dickinson, and struggled with the poem – I didn’t know what was going on. I return often to it now, and it still puzzles me because… well, what is the plot of it? It’s not obvious.

But the fly had also been buzzing in my head in the sense that I’d fairly recently watched my father on his deathbed. So the idea of the fly not really being a fly in Emily Dickinson’s poem but rather a death rattle presented itself. I don’t know if that’s what you get from the beginning; it took me some time to understand that.

The whole process of writing a poem, which looks so centred on the page but is actually the result of so much destruction – I mean, literally, I was trying to write a poem while I was down in a caravan in west Wales, and the flies were coming in out of the cold. I spent most of the time swatting flies. So I wanted to take a broader look, to include the flies, and they got into the poem.

DG

In many ways, it seems to me, this is a poem about distraction, in that you’re narrating a drawing, and the poem distracts from that original creative task you’ve set out to do.

GL

I’ve got the actual drawing to show you [reaches across desk for sketchbook].

DG

Yes, I wanted to know to what extent these drawings were real or not.

GL

The reason it’s not there in the poem is that you don’t need the drawing to get the drawing – that’s what I realised, that you don’t have to put the drawing in.

DG

And yet you say ‘see opposite’, which is a playful nod to the fact that there is a real drawing somewhere.

GL

It’s a bit naughty, that. I like the contrariness of ‘this is true, but this isn’t true’, which is one of the things that poetry can do, because it’s language under such pressure that it makes impossible things happen. That’s why I love it as an art form. And distraction is not just a matter of your attention being diverted, it’s an emotional state as well: ‘being driven to distraction’, which means not being able to contemplate an experience because it’s too painful. If you can imagine me sitting in my caravan, hearing death rattles at all the windows – well, it becomes a statement about grief, really. You see your loss everywhere.

DG

Another allusion I wanted to explore – and I wonder if I’m over-reading into it here – is that of another famous poetic fly, from Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, which has the line ‘The blue fly sung in the pane’. T.S. Eliot wrote about it as one of his favourite lines in Tennyson, saying that if it was grammatically correct – it should be ‘The blue fly sang in the pane’ – then it would be ruined. He saw it as an illustration of Tennyson’s almost naïve gift.

GL

Perhaps Tennyson did actually have a bluebottle distracting him, which is why it’s in the present.

DG

Indeed. And Mariana is a character of grief and distraction, so I wondered if it was there at all.

GL

You’ve read more Tennyson than I have, but it’s entirely consonant. I can’t claim that I know that reference, because I don’t, but I like it very much. I’ve never heard a fly ‘sing,’ though, they always buzz when I’m around, and are much more annoying than Tennyson and Eliot’s insects.

DG

I imagine Dickinson might have read Tennyson (rather than the other way round) so maybe that little through-line is being continued in your poem.

GL

That sounds plausible to me, completely. You hear these overtones in the poem, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you hear a double overtone – but your ear is reaching back further than mine, there.

DG

While we’re on the subject of allusions, I heard a crossover with a couple of poems from your last collection, Sparrow Tree, to do with this matter of usurpation and infestation from the animal world, as it takes over a human body. In ‘Principalities, Dominions’ we have ‘Now a fly / Twitches, a nerve in my eye’, whereas at the start of ‘Guest’ it’s ‘A blue tit pecks at the window pane / Of your eye.’

GL

Well-noticed!

DG

Thanks! And I’m not just looking for top marks, obviously – it strikes me as an incredibly apt and suggestive metaphor, for that moment when outside distraction becomes so total that it morphs with your own subjectivity. It intrudes upon you in a visceral way, almost beyond metaphor – as if that’s actually what’s happening to you.

GL

I think this is actually how metaphor does work. I’m not someone who sees nature as something opposed to the human, or to poetry, or to technology. It’s all of a piece to my mind – so why wouldn’t the animal, the human, the technological all be enmeshed together? I think it’s a false division to say ‘this is nature and this is us’ – or ‘this is nature and this is culture’. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. It’s not an entirely benign interchange, either – it can be benign – but the main thing is that the job, it seems to me, of the poet is to try to make yourself open enough to feel those interventions when they happen, and to include them. To be surprised by bluebottles, rather than to say, ‘I don’t want to think about that. It’s horrible, it’s frightening.’ You don’t have to terrify yourself – no, you don’t have to paralyse yourself, if you look at things through the corner of your eye in a work of art. In a poem it becomes bearable to look at things that you can’t bear head-on.

DG

I wonder if these interchanges could happen, to the extent they do when the bird or the fly melds with the eye, at anything other than a point of stress. I wonder what the equivalent would be in a more benign sort of interchange.

GL

I can’t imagine the benign interchange, but I do like the fact that the bumping against the windowpane of the eye is happening from both sides of the windowpane. That seems to me to be right and proper, because you don’t want to say, ‘Ah! I am nothing. I am just waiting for divine inspiration.’ That seems to me to be, you know, straight romanticism. Neither do I want to say it’s all me – that seems to be narcissism. What I’m looking for is a dialogue between the world and the… the resisted.

DG

On a similar note, could we talk about the eggs that are in this poem? You mention ‘the abdomen / Swelling with eggs’, which seems to be a foreboding image rather than one of fertility necessarily.

GL

Gosh, how terrifying!

DG

And again, I’ve been a good sleuth and found an echo of another poem in Sparrow Tree, ‘A Field Guide to Dementia’, which has ‘I think some cuckoo’s laid / An egg of darkness in my head’ – so this foreboding egg, and the growth of something…

GL

Well, it’s something that everybody feels in relation to flies, isn’t it? The fear of the eggs laid. I don’t mean the eggs in ‘Principalities, Dominions’ to be entirely forbidding. I was just trying to give a sense of that gorgeous sheen – you know when flesh is very plumped-up and taut? I suppose it is a slightly sinister fecundity, but…

DG

Maybe it’s the abdomen?

GL

It’s the abdomen, yes. But, you know – I’ve got a taste for the gory. It seems to me a very enjoyable thought to scrutinise. There must be other things more painful than thinking of flies’ eggs. I think that that’s the proper place for it, as a detail. But I do have a gruesome sense of humour, I must admit.

DG

Is the chalcid wasp at odds with the fly in the poem, as something that is more beautiful, and captured by the drawing?

GL

There are two types of art there. First of all, there’s the chalcid wasp as he or she exists – I think it’s a she because of the abdomen having the eggs. And then there’s the drawing of the chalcid wasp, which is my terrible pencil drawing…

DG

It’s not terrible. [DG: It really isn’t.]

GL

No, well, it’s copied. I didn’t find a chalcid wasp – this is a copy of a drawing of a print of a chalcid wasp, so there’s that print in between us as well.

DG

Which renders it that much safer…

GL

And accessible. Because it’s not flying away from me, and it’s not dead – well, it is sort of dead, but it’s visible. Then the fly is what you can’t see. There’s no detailed, close-up description of the fly, for two reasons. Perhaps it would be too frightening – because a chalcid wasp is actually quite handsome compared to a house fly – but the fly’s moving. I just wanted somehow to enact the things that push you away from a poem, and that’s what I’m hoping that the fly does in the poem.

DG

Is it sort of like a visitor from Porlock?

GL

Yes! He is a Porlock person. Yes, exactly, that’s absolutely right. In fact, worse than a person from Porlock, because you can shut the door on him, whereas these insects are inside the room.

DG

A little anecdotal riff, but I’m petrified of wasps. Flies I can cope with but the airborne sting of a wasp terrifies me and has done since childhood.

GL

Have you been stung?

DG

I have.

GL

That’s experience then, see, not fear.

DG

Maybe. It happened at a formative age, when I was about three or something and I hadn’t been stung for a long time in between until this summer. It happened when I wasn’t looking and had to, because otherwise it would have been too dreadful. There’s something of that vertiginous fascination with the sting, as well as a recoiling from it, in the brilliant ‘scimitar point’ of this chalcid wasp. I’d particularly like to talk about the lines immediately afterwards, ‘Should a wasp this actual size ever land / On my heart, I’d go missing…’

GL

I was thinking about those illustrations which say ‘actual size’, and how much adrenaline you’d have to inject to counter the sting should you be allergic – it’s terrifying, that. It comes from the memory of a very specific shirt, actually. I once met a sailor whose shirt had a pocket over his heart – as you have there [points to my shirt pocket] – and he had an embroidered wasp on it. I haven’t been able to forget that. I’ve been trying to introduce that shirt into a poem for a while.

DG

Yet the shirt’s been excised from the poem. It’s another one of those very troubling insectoid interactions, where it’s come in and it’s not meant to have. Albeit in the subjunctive mood of ‘Should this ever happen’, it’s come in off the page, and it’s not even stinging you on your skin – it’s now found its way inside, into the very chambers of your heart.

GL

It’s an image for heartbreak, really – that’s what it is, but without saying ‘My heart’s broken’ or ‘I miss my father’. I find myself – you know, me, Gwyneth, confessional – deeply boring, so I suppose… you can’t move away from what’s happening to you personally, but there might be more interesting ways of imagining it than saying, ‘I’m missing my father.’

DG

I wouldn’t have known that this was a poem of bereavement, necessarily, apart from that echo of a death-possessed poem by Emily Dickinson. So I’m interested in how you’ve managed to transcend the biographical input, and anatomise heartbreak – this rather hoary cliché that we have – as a sting on the heart.

GL

I don’t mind that it’s disappeared. I’m content. The only thing I wanted was a poem that worked. I’m just recalling that wonderful image in Pulp Fiction with the adrenaline needle going into Uma Thurman’s chest after she’s taken an overdose.

DG

Maybe I could come at the question from a different angle: would you actively seek to circumvent the ostensible subject?

GL

No, I wouldn’t. Because that would be just as inhibiting as actively trying to put it out there. I think it’s a question of temperament, of the degree of atmospheric pressure which I need to be under in order to produce a poem. This does change, but at the moment it seems that I can’t do the explicit, confessional poems, and that this is the only way it works for me. So I’m quite happy to skulk behind needles and wasps, in the interest, actually, of… well, it’s the only way I can think to portray my heartbreak more accurately. Doing it any more explicitly, I couldn’t cope – it would be unbearable. This is the only focal distance at which I can bear to think about the subject at the moment.

DG

Some sort of indirection, irony or displacement is often necessary, I suppose, in getting us even close to what we’d like to say.

GL

That’s right, and Emily Dickinson is the great exemplar of this. ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes.’ This isn’t a highly formal poem, in the sense that it has an explicit rhyme scheme, but it is formal in its own way.

DG

Would you like to talk about how you see the form working in the poem?

GL

Well, I’m trying to – I think I’ve got [counts] – yes, the stanzas don’t have the same number of lines, but they’re close. I do think of it as not quite free verse, in the sense that rhyme – it isn’t there as a scheme, but as a shaping principle. It’s very subtle.

DG

‘Settle’ and ‘rattle’, for instance – which is more audible, actually…

GL

Yes, that kind of thing. Or ‘snow’ and ‘apostrophe’ – I mean, that’s indirect.

DG

Muldoonian, even.

GL

Sting/missing, and visual rhymes like where/eye: I’m very interested at the moment not in full rhymes, but in how off can I be, how unlyrical, without losing the surface tension that I think you need in order to make each line necessary. I couldn’t tell you how many drafts I did of this. You know, it was very hard earned, and I now feel like I couldn’t move any one part of it without unpicking the whole thread.

DG

So it ‘clicked shut’, did it, to paraphrase Yeats?

GL

That’s too mechanical. I mean it would be like pulling a wing off one of the stanzas.

DG

Were these very deft, provocative off-rhymes things that came through in drafting the poem?

GL

Many drafts. ‘Poem’ and ‘pain’, I’ve just noticed that, and then there’s an explicit rhyme at the end of the first stanza, which starts with ‘misnamed’: pain/again. The clue is there about it being a poem about pain.

To come back to your original question, which is an interesting one, about referring to your elders and betters – well, it’s a risky thing to do. The comparison is not going to do me any favours. But it’s alright to be fearless. Emily Dickinson came into the poem and Emily Dickinson left at times, though she was always there in my mind. I wavered about whether to put her name in and to remind people of a poem that’s much better than this one. My mind changed about that constantly, but in the end I decided to risk it.

DG

And yet you issue a correction to Emily Dickinson across the intervening century and a half or so. What has she ‘misnamed’ in her poem?

GL

She speaks of the death rattle as a fly. I’m convinced that the bluebottle she’s talking about is actually the death rattle. It’s one of those hidden things in the poem, perhaps – she says ‘I heard a fly buzz’ but what she really hears is that [makes the rattling sound of a dying person’s throat]. But she can’t bear to call it that, so the actual fly takes over as a way of leading us through the poem. So it’s not a correction – it’s an appreciation of the importance of what she was talking about.

DG

And of her own indirection, back in the day. It speaks to what we were talking about earlier: ‘misnaming’ was her way of figuring, of getting to the point where what she had to say was bearable to say.

GL

I did a very interesting exercise this summer with students. I got them to act out the plot of Dickinson’s poem, and that is a fascinating exercise because you start to see how many selves are in that poem, how many different events – how you can read what happens in the poem differently. So I do recommend that as a way of trying to work out a difficult poem.

DG

And taking the narrative of that poem seriously.

GL

Which I do – the literals are dismissed at your own peril.

DG

What’s happening, then, in the last stanza of ‘Principalities, Dominions’?

GL

Oh, you horror! [Laughs]

DG

So there seems to me to be a move towards greater and greater interpenetration, or as I said earlier, I think it’s right to say infestation – trespassing across the boundary. The vibration moves into something very synaesthetic, this image of ‘tinnitus trapped overleaf’. Is that famous high-pitched sound of tinnitus experienced in the ambient surroundings of the poem beforehand, before becoming at one with the sketchbook somehow?

GL

Well, I can tell you the plot of the whole poem if you’d like. If I was to act it out, first of all I’d be sitting at a table copying a drawing. Then I’d be hearing insects – I’d be distracted from time to time hearing insects, thinking, ‘Oh I hate that.’ You know that unique irritation you have? That irritation is good, in a way, because it’s close to being really in the present. It’s very useful for the poet.

DG

And for a grieving person – as a displacement?

GL

That’s right. You’re trying to keep things together, but your real irritation comes out in something that’s just a fly. So then, in the second verse, it’s a close-up of the drawing of the wasp. I’m being a wasp now with my arms up [DG: she is], though I haven’t got enough arms. I’m a holy roller, singing ‘holy, holy, holy’. I’ve got a rounded abdomen and great big lovely sting at the bottom.

Then – well, that doesn’t help me. I’d hoped that paying such close attention to describing the wasp would blot out the flies. But another fly distracts me and it doesn’t work – so it’s a failed evasion.

DG

The maraca?

GL

Yes, the maraca that ‘butts the light’. Now I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, they’re under the eaves of the caravan. There’s so many of them, this can’t be right.’ So it’s come too close for comfort now. I can’t make a distinction between the flies and me. My fear is that the flies have infected me, and that’s why I start hearing the buzzing on the other side of the page – it’s right there in the process of writing.

There is a hinterland to this story, which is that in the same caravan I got a wasps’ nest in the ceiling. I’d been hearing this humming and tried to get it into the poem, but it wouldn’t go. It’s the idea of thinking, ‘That’s a strange humming noise,’ then slowly thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, no, that isn’t normal,’ and discovering what was happening. So the literal wasps’ nest didn’t get in but the important thing for me was the buzzing – and that survived as houseflies.

I don’t make this caravan sound like a very attractive place.

DG

It’s like The Shining or something, as you become more and more aware of something being not quite right in your isolated residence. But we’ve stopped before the poem’s final allusion, this time a direct quotation. I’ve done my sleuthing again, and I’ve chased it to John Curtis and a book called Farm Insects – am I right?

GL

Well, no. [Pause.] Well, you may be right…

DG

It’s an 1860 book that came up when I plonked your quotation into Google.

GL

I’d be grateful if you could give me the reference because I’ve done that classic thing you should never do – and I don’t usually do this – of copying something out without a reference. It is here somewhere, copied into this drawing book, but I think I’ve lost the source…

DG

I think it’s only to the good if it’s been digested into the history of the poem and the texts that are informing it.

GL

It has been, but I’m ashamed of myself as a scholar. It wasn’t taken from that actual book. It was taken from some reference book that has plagiarised that book.

DG

Or maybe it’s vice-versa – I don’t know who’s chasing whom. The quotation, though, seems to come in at an angle…

GL

It does come in at angle, but it moves things on – moves the whole situation to the art of the poem. I want to push on the reader to the next poem. Again, it’s addressing the fear of – well, if we look at things like wasps and flies, what are we going to see? I suppose, hopefully, this will be part of a sequence – sort of like a horror movie.

DG

Is there some sort of overarching irony in the poem, then – that we’re dealing with a world where providence has no such kind designs?

GL

Well. It’s an important question to ask. I know the meaning of the word providence is benign, but you could read it otherwise – I hope the jury’s out on that one. Yes, I would like to be questioning that word. Definitely.

DG

While we’re at the business end of the poem, I notice that there are three rhetorical questions that work their way into the third stanza. Would you like to talk about how they find their way into the poem – how they might engage or provoke the reader?

GL

You’re in a better position to answer that than I am, in the sense of how they engage the reader. The first question is ‘Where / Do they hatch from?’ and I think that’s very much a transcription of what was going on in my own mind, which was ‘Where on earth are they coming from?’ It’s an expression of, again, horror. How can they keep going? Because I’ve got rid of a few of them and they’re still coming. It’s like… they keep coming in the same way that the poem keeps coming. Automatically, we poets tend to think that when a poem comes along it’s a good thing. Well, no – not necessarily so. So I beg the question there.

DG

The next question is ‘Feel that vibration?’ and it feels more like a direct question to the reader at that point, whereas the first one is in the psyche of the speaker.

GL

Yes, it’s an interior voice. And the last one, ‘Do you dare turn over?’ – it’s an explicit challenge, to both the reader and the writer. Do I dare write the next one? Do you dare read it?

DG

Do you see that ending on a question is a risk at all? I know that one of my main workshop tutors down the years, Roddy Lumsden, always said to his students that you have a ration of questions that you can use in your poems – but he’s quite fond of edicts that you’re not necessarily meant to listen to.

GL

It makes me want to write a poem that’s full of questions. I’m just glad to have found an ending that gives me an ending, because these things are so difficult – I find writing so difficult – that I’m not even worried if it’s a question. It wouldn’t even occur to me to worry about it.

DG

So it just needs to be the right fit to help it – well, it wasn’t clicking shut, was it, but to put the final limb on the fly, so to speak?

GL

That’s it! It’s hard. When is the contraption necessary? I’ve learned to wait and wait and wait.

DG

What about the title? It seems to be a reference to angelology – am I sniffing on the right lines there?

GL

It’s from one of the Letters of St Paul. What is it? ‘I am convinced that nothing…’ I’ll tell you what it is exactly. [Here Gwyneth leaves the room to find her source. She comes back holding a small, frayed booklet.] It’s Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I’ve got it here in Welsh, so that won’t do anyone any good.

DG

Our readers might like to know about it.

GL

I’m reading this from a very strange little pamphlet, having found it clearing out my parents’ house. You’ll see this is a very grubby, tiny little pamphlet that’s obviously been in somebody’s pocket. My grandfather was a miner and that smudging looks to me a little like coal dust.

DG

What does it say on the front?

GL

Gair o Gysur’ – ‘A Word of Comfort’. This is the quote in Welsh: “ Y mae yn ddiogel gennyf, na all angau, nac einioes, nac angylion, na thywysogaethau, na meddiannau,  na phethau presennol, na phethau i ddyfod, nac uchder, na dyfnder, nac un creadur arall, ein gwahanu ni oddiwrth gariad Duw, yr hwn sydd yng Nghrist Iesu ein Hargwlydd.” I’ll just get the translation. I know my Bible in Welsh rather than English. ‘For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights, or depths, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus, our Lord.’ Now, I’m reading from the Revised English Bible, and it doesn’t have the older translation, which contains ‘principalities, dominions’. The main thing is that it’s part of a catalogue of powers, and other dimensions.

DG

This wonderful artefact seems to say something very deep about the method of conveyance between Welsh and English in your writing – how things might come about and be transformed from one into the other.

GL

Yes, though I didn’t have this little pamphlet when I wrote the poem. The relationship is with the words, not the pamphlet.

DG

Ah, so had you come across that passage from Paul elsewhere?

GL

I had.

DG

Finding this must have been a strange, chance encounter.

GL

Just this morning I picked it up because it seemed the easiest way to find the reference. But your question is approaching a really important thing, which is: what is the difference between making a poem that has a necessary form – that is, something that cannot be otherwise – and how you might make distraction and misdirection, as a subject, in its own way necessary? The reason ‘Principalities, Dominions’ is there is that it connects with the chalcid wasp singing ‘Holy, Holy’. The wasp is being described as an angel – I think in a much earlier draft there was a lot more angelic stuff in there. The reason the title is still there is that, in a way, there’s more comfort in the context of what St Paul’s saying. Even if you’re left alone with flies buzzing at the window and death rattles, there’s comfort in that relationship with the Word of God, if you like. That’s the overall incarnation in the poem. Nothing’s there by accident.

DG

The title seems to be redeeming that sense of providence, taking it out of quotation marks and irony – or maybe just deepening the irony, I don’t know.

GL

I don’t know if I’d say irony – it’s a questioning, certainly. Maybe it is irony, I don’t know. I’m very suspicious when people say ‘providence good, so-and-so bad’; ‘poetry good…’ You know, I just don’t believe in these binary oppositions. I think things are much more mixed, and interesting, and complex than that.

DG

You’re a poet who excels across a broader canvas, often using narrative sequences such as A Hospital Odyssey and Keeping Mum before that. I wonder if this intense engagement with the Dickinsonian lyric – well, how that works against your practice in these longer forms and sequences. Are you in a period when you’re writing more like this?

GL

Hospital Odyssey was a long poem and had a sort of narrative speed about it – although it was fully rhymed throughout, and I discovered such an interesting thing by doing the poem in five-lined stanzas, that rhyme goes at a different pace from narrative. So if you’re writing lyrical poetry – let’s say a lyric that’s fully rhymed – the rhyme words will be pushing you on faster than the story. I quite often used to have a rhyme scheme in place a couple of stanzas forward, even before I knew how I was going to get the narrative to that place. I think that speaks to the relationship between the subconscious and words, because narrative is that bit clunkier.

But I’m also interested in the small effects, so at the moment I’m writing very short poems. If you think about Welsh – well, some Welsh-language poets never write outside the englyn, a three- or four-line stanza. It’s just their form, and you can do everything in that. So I think, again, I don’t have a choice in the matter. I just do whatever is possible – and that’s all I can tell you.

Principalities, Dominions

by Gwyneth Lewis

No sooner do I start to settle
To copy my wasp (see opposite) than,
Trapped between net curtain and pane,
Yet another bluebottle loses control, panics,
Ricochets with that tiny death-rattle
That Emily Dickinson misnamed
As a fly when she died in her poem.
My mind’s an insect that hits its pain
Over and over and over again.

Back to my Chalcid wasp. It
Seems to sing: “Holy! Holy!”
Forelegs, raised, evangelical,
To catch that grace which falls like snow
In this paper’s grain. I like its sting,
The scimitar point, an apostrophe.
Should a wasp this actual size ever land
On my heart, I’d go missing…

Another maraca butts the light. Where
Do they hatch from? Now a fly
Twitches, a nerve in my eye.
Continue drawing: the abdomen
Swelling with eggs. Feel that vibration?
It’s tinnitus trapped overleaf,
Raging. For “a dispensation of providence
Keeps every animal in check by some other
More powerful, on the other side
Of the page.” Do you dare turn over?

First Published by Prac Crit.