Prac Crit

Awake for Ever

by Andrea Brady

Essay

by Sophie Read

‘Awake For Ever’ opens with an old trick: ‘The turn of the season is like an egg: / or isn’t’. 1 This self-conscious simile undoes itself in its second breath, exposing the workings of the figure while enjoying the surprise of its momentary coupling: the ‘turn’ of sun to snow as the year ages is strangely but plausibly imagined as the curve of an eggshell, ‘fragile’, ‘strong’. ‘Or isn’t’ is misdirection: it pretends that the whole poem, indeed the whole sequence, doesn’t depend on just this conjunction; that the alchemical action of time on egg or embryo, and its various resistances and susceptibilities to poetry, isn’t the centre of its concern. In fact, ‘Awake For Ever’ traces in miniature the trajectory of the whole sequence: ‘To begin’, Mutability begins, ‘with an incident outside language’; and its last words record the articulation of trembling excitement at a first sight of snow: ‘you think it’s extraordinary, and say so’. In the lyric poems of the sequence, and in the diaristic prose reflections in which they are rooted, language is essayed for its ability to render the early experience of motherhood, a necessarily one-sided enterprise; all is at risk, the poetry and the exhaustive, exhausted love it documents, from the growing exertion of difference as its subject learns to talk. ‘Awake For Ever’ sets a child’s small life against the progress of geological history, and notices that the movement from snuffling symbiosis into language, into speech, is as weighty and bewildering an achievement as the evolution of the species.

Geological time is one of the poem’s pulses: the egg that isn’t might bob up again in the generative soup of the second phase, ‘the water we drift in’, ‘the sun which provokes us / to life’. Its early world is mythic and dreamlike, drawn from nothing with a few phrases; the ‘forest orchestra / we heard only once and forgot totally’ haunts the collective memory with art and a different kind of articulation. That is not the only past to be patiently excavated here, however. The book’s title is Spenserian, and there are odd splinters that reflect a distinctively sixteenth-century sensibility, both in the poem’s fabric (it borrows Surrey’s ‘houshold of continuance’ for its near-final mood of resigned tranquility) and in its situation. Like a Tudor sonneteer, Brady finds herself inspired by a beloved who is space, a languageless cipher; Mutability is a love letter to her daughter which is predicated on the knowledge that its intensity is, quite literally, unanswerable. The closest imaginable co-dependence is that of mother and child just as they start to be separate, and every instant of growth is a growing apart as eyes lighten and focus, fingers turn spasm into grip and sound is mastered into a means of expression. It is perhaps for this reason that the poem records a complicated sense of loss at the anticipated milestone of ‘speech from that yellow head’: both because, though longed-for and inevitable, it marks the irrecoverability of the prior state, and because the child’s new words will eventually silence her mother’s attempts to voice her, will circumscribe the compass of the work. Immediately before in the sequence comes a meditation which explicitly recognizes this fact: ‘when you begin to speak for yourself I’ll have to stop’ (p. 107). Here, at the poem’s end, the thought is framed as a brave, delusory insistence that this lighting on language is not just one step closer to the end of the world: ‘we diet on promise’ – both feed, and starve – ‘that the remainder is an infinite factor / of the unspeakable now’.

The belief that what is to come will keep on making up for what has been lost, in growth, in progress, is throughout held in tension with the fear that it won’t. The poem’s evolutionary timescale, the ‘past / sedimented with the others under our feet’, disguises the particularity of its attention; even when the span of human history measures as nothing (‘we seem short-run and product-trialled’), the cumulative loss of one golden child’s growing up would destroy us, if we let it. So the poem offers civilized stoicism, couched in the terms of good renaissance ideals of acquisition and account, as a strategy of response.

If we can carry ourselves forward without
the hurt of a forced surrender, it is no heroism,
but all the wealth and property of our
household of continuance

That last phrase is, as I’ve already mentioned, from Surrey’s lines on ‘the thinges that do attain / The happy life’; 2  that poem’s measured rejection of excess and ambition, its professed desire for the quiet of domestic continuity, is only slightly undercut by the historical accident of its author’s execution for treason. Here, it is the willed movement forward in the face of heavy loss – the battleground imagery (‘surrender’, ‘heroism’) is perhaps in tribute to Surrey’s military career – that itself constitutes the asset husbanded carefully against future need. This is the ambivalence at the poem’s heart: progress is not to be celebrated nor mourned, but rather endured, and Surrey’s sententiousness tempers the echo of Spenser’s shrill lament: ‘all this world is woxen daily worse. / O pittious worke of mvtabilitie!’. 3

‘To notice time / is a challenge not to grieve’. The poem circles round its governing aphorism and decides, in the end, to accept this challenge; but it does notice time, watching jealously, unblinkingly, sleeplessly – awake, for ever – over the child whose resistless changeability, whose wakening into language, is its subject and source. In the short block of prose that follows, the last of the sequence, the moods are mercurial. We are told ‘it’s surprise which evokes you’, and ‘nothing surprises you’; ‘you’re oblivious’, then you ‘startle and shake with wonder’. All of this is true, in turn and at once; to believe that ‘something is coming of it’, though each moment that passes is a moment that is lost, is the calculated act of faith that the poem performs.

Notes:

  1. ‘My Mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne’ (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130, Shake-speares Sonnets (London, 1609)
  2. Songes and sonettes, written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other [Tottel’s Miscellany] (London, 1557), p. 16
  3. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Qveene, disposed into XII bookes: Fashioning twelue Morall Vertues (London, 1609), p. 354

Awake for Ever

by Andrea Brady

The turn of the season is like an egg:
or isn’t, though fragile, though precipitously
strong. To notice time
is a challenge not to grieve:
for something is coming of it,
something other than the terminus,
which is the water we drift in,
which is the sun which provokes us,
to life which is the forest orchestra
we heard only once and forgot totally,
which is the speech from that yellow head:
one less of each of these is a test
of our generosity. We must give it up to a past
sedimented with the others under our feet,
against which we are so rudimentary
we seem short-run and product-trialled.
If we can carry ourselves forward without
the hurt of a forced surrender, it is no heroism,
but all the wealth and property of our
household of continuance: brave like gold stuff,
like faces, we diet on promise
that the remainder is an infinite factor
of the unspeakable now.

London covered in, debilitated by, joying in snow: seven inches or more, Siberian airs, North Sea waters. You’re oblivious, stuck inside with a running cold and laughing all through your dinner: it’s surprise which evokes you, you delight at the simple plosives that come from a resting face, eyes thrown upward to indicate ‘wait for it’. Or you cough, I say ‘exCUSE me’ in highest camp, and you give your bawdy laugh: this is conversation. But also nothing surprises you, so will you recognise the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park? Suddenly you tilt your head back at the playground gate, look at the sky and startle and shake with wonder. Yes, there are trees there, wires of different thicknesses for the several species, silhouettes of seedpod and nib making a fishing net out of the sky: you think it’s extraordinary, and say so.

2 February 2009

From Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (Seagull Books, 2012). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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