Prac Crit

Dawn Chorus

by Sasha Dugdale

I’ll begin with ‘Les Énervés de Jumièges’, the poem Dugdale discusses in her interview for this edition of Prac Crit. Ekphrastic poems respond to, are provoked into being by, a difficulty which has become (for the poet; and, she hopes, for the reader) enthralling. For verse and visual art can never totally coincide: these artworks produce their effects in different ways, and to write such a poem is always to work out, afresh, how to bring varying media into meaningful relation. Certainly, this fascinating poem-fragment includes lovely visual description. A candle-wick that ‘holds the light in its greasy finger’; the morning as itself a ‘miniscule new flame / Over the sifting waters of the river’. (Though even here, isn’t that delicate i sound – which appeals to the ear, not the eye – absolutely vital?). But ultimately, in Dugdale’s ‘Les Énervés’, the challenge of writing a poem about a painting rhymes with that of describing a life which is no life at all. The poem ends – it disappears, it can’t go on – as it approaches this paradox. It isn’t about experience but unexperience. No fewer than six negatives give us (or cannot, for the brothers don’t really exist; reach out to touch them and your hand might pass straight through) the énervés ‘un-fostered, un-claimed / Un-aged, sans taste sans smell, sans touch’. The allusion is to As You Like It, and Jaques’ description of old age, its ‘second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ But this isn’t a poem about old, but about (horribly punished, literally desensitised) young men. So given Dugdale’s interview, I also think of Keats, the grand old young man – forever young – of English letters. ‘The feel’, as he says, of ‘not to feel it’.

In that poem, rhyme and assonance conjure throughout a blurred, a melting – I won’t say evanescent, that’s close to a received idea, and this verse struggles authentically – a failed solidity. Dugdale evokes, lusciously: ‘birds shake themselves, and plunge into the river – / A thousand small courtiers’ coughs’. But these details can’t touch the impossible subject. ‘Still all this is nothing to the Énervés’. A trace, perhaps, of impatience. What does matter to these dead-alive brothers, stripped of their nerves, of their stake in the world they watch pass by with a curiously disarticulated scrutiny? For why look closely at a place one no longer lives in or feelingly responds to? Maybe because the brothers remember, or wish to remember, what it is like to feel. The weed-snagged boat ‘rasps on stone’, they think, ‘like something hurt’; here precise sensuous observation leads into an imagining of dead matter as something alive. Beings beyond ‘hurt’ seek, impulsively, self-understanding with a leap of the imagination – and in thinking of the boat as like their past selves, they do reveal a simmering, incoherent vitality, which inspects the surroundings yet can’t resolve into knowledge its mutilated and partial discoveries. This isn’t a poem straightforwardly about depression, anhedonia, grief – it concerns, as Dugdale explains in her interview, an impossible state of mind which relates to Keats in particular and an understanding of the poet, and poetic creation, which he provides. Yet the nullity at its heart touches on a deadness at the heart of life which everyone knows. Auden’s crack in the tea-cup which opens a lane to the land of the dead.

‘Dawn Chorus’ is equally concerned with vitality and deadness. Well, I say equally, to make the connection – to bridge the paragraphs; to illustrate one of Dugdale’s enduring themes. But in fact these two poems are uniquely, not identically attentive to these concepts. Let’s start at the end. The ‘dark world / Where only travelers and the sleepless belong’ is close to that of the Énervés. But here ‘such dissonance as befits the dark world’ substitutes for outright breakdown a form of musical variation: the resolution, or otherwise, of a chord; such disorder as order may yet include. The second, third and fourth stanzas all include a full rhyme – but the one we close on, song and belong, doesn’t pretend to be more than impromptu. Its decisiveness will do for now – to wrap up the poem – but offers no cleansing resolution, simply one more element of an abraded melopoeia.

That is to say, despair, entropy, chaos is present within the poem – Et in Arcadia ego – and pain too, for the birds sing ‘as if each had pecked up a smoldering coal’. And here I think of another Romantic – Shelley, who wrote that ‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness’. ‘Smoldering’ insists, unlike ‘fading’, on the heat and light which remains in the coal; though Dugdale sees not ‘a slither of light at the horizon’, the birdsong contains within it the coming dawn-light, the first fires of day. (The uncertainly porous border between sleeping and waking is Keatsian: ‘Do I wake or sleep’, he asks, in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, remarking in a letter to Benjamin Bailey that ‘the imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth.’) In a poem which rhymes in this way – with a seemingly uncalculated immediacy, a needful, almost helter-skelter, locating of the sounds as one goes along – the first rhyme is often very important. Does ‘loud, unbelievably loud, shameless, raucous’ really rhyme with ‘chorus’? Yes: shamelessly, raucously. But in the slight distance – the dissonance – between the words which don’t fully chime, we hear also the difference between the chorus the poet imagines, and the thing itself.

The song of the birds with coals in their mouths – really a cry of complicated pain – may remind us of the drifting boat in ‘Les Énervés’, rasping the stone bank ‘like something hurt’. Another simile which links sound and suffering, and insists, as the creative connection is made, on the presence of something bleak and negative within that process. The no inside the yes. Which the poem may yet redeem, in its very texture, as dissonance, variation of line length and rhyme – instead of petering out at the draft stage, as in ‘Les Énervés de Jumièges’.‘Every morning since the time changed’: Dugdale speaks of setting the clock forward for Daylight Saving Time, a mundane activity seemingly confirmed by the poem’s date as its germinating occasion. But that phrase – ‘since the time changed’ – also describes a more profound and unspecified alteration: personal, or political? ‘The time is out of joint’, says Hamlet. The nervous, bird-like ‘twitch’ (mischievous: birdwatchers are also called ‘twitchers’) with which the speaker opens the curtains, expecting ‘the birds to be pressing in fright / Against the pane like passengers’ on a hijacked plane, or train; the demented earnestness which makes of them a ‘million small evangelists’. Is it too fanciful to hear ‘terror’ within ‘terrible’? Perhaps not, for the poem’s date is also that of the Moscow metro bombing which killed 40 people – close to where Dugdale used to live.

Rush hour in Moscow coincides with dawn in England. Where there’s something in the air, not the news itself but an awful intimation. Missing its true focus – the absence electrifies – ‘Dawn Chorus’ seems to feel, unlike the Énervés, not too little but too much. That draft came up against the indescribable, and faltered; here, too, a determining reality lurks in the margins and is not fully presented. As a result, the poem fizzes with an almost paranoid expectancy. Other than commas, Dugdale eschews punctuation, and shakes up the syntax: perceptions refuse to congeal into a sated knowingness, the verse is insecure, brilliantly so, and the stanzas both connect and don’t in a way which reminds me, again, of the deep concerns (or unconcerns) of the Énervés. Unlike most modern poets, she capitalises the beginnings of lines. So they stand out individually (the effect recalls Ted Hughes) while yearning to combine – into a freakishly heightened, and outlined, and sonically underlined verse-language. Unashamedly impressively provisional. On that brink, that boundary, between day and night, feeling and unfeeling, the poet discovers (as ‘Les Énervés de Jumièges’ attempts) a dishevelled lucidity adequate to a dark and hurting world.

And I wonder if ekphrasis is relevant here too. Poems of that kind both veil and reveal; the words on the page are like the curtain twitched apart in this poem, and even though the speaker here sees little – ‘the garden was empty and it was night’ doesn’t exactly overwhelm us with painterly detail – the inter-media dealings of ekphrasis may encompass both the acoustic and the visual arts. Birdsong is one of the traditional lyric subjects, but when Dugdale starts to describe precisely ‘how they sing’ (a phrase both exclamatory and analytic), and attunes her flexible verse-structure to their telling ‘dissonance’, the picture she paints is of a sophisticated and historical music.

Dawn Chorus

by Sasha Dugdale

March 29, 2010

Every morning since the time changed
I have woken to the dawn chorus
And even before it sounded, I dreamed of it
Loud, unbelievably loud, shameless, raucous

And once I rose and twitched the curtains apart
Expecting the birds to be pressing in fright
Against the pane like passengers
But the garden was empty and it was night

Not a slither of light at the horizon
Still the birds were bawling through the mists
Terrible, invisible
A million small evangelists

How they sing: as if each had pecked up a smoldering coal
Their throats singed and swollen with song
In dissonance as befits the dark world
Where only travelers and the sleepless belong

First published in Poetry (Chicago), May 2011. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Related articles

Mark Waldron

“I wanted a character who could act like an idiot in my poems so that I didn't have to act like an idiot in them. There's a kind of archness that really wants to come out sometimes, so I let poor old Manning express that – he's my stooge.”
Poem to Poem

Matthew Gregory

“I like travelling very much. I think my ideal state would be perpetual, though gradual, motion. A very slow sleeper train that dawdled at various stations for however long it took to tire of the stop.”