As Robert Lowell has it, ‘Sometimes in sickness, / we are weak enough to enter heaven’. It’s one pilgrim’s ailing progress into that recalcitrant heaven, America, 1 that Roddy Lumsden charts in Steady Grinding Blues – a cross-state road poem you’d be hard pressed to find a more accurate or trite epithet for than bittersweet.
The sequence is made up of vignettes and short narratives set in locations from San Francisco to Manhattan. We steal from its narrator and flâneur-Americana a vicarious immersion in his scenes: 2 a funeral motorcade in Chinatown; a lumber box-car train through rural Oregon; a vixen cub encounter on a Seattle street corner; food and music from Beef Tea and Billie Holiday to Dub Side of the Moon with soup and a sandwich. Yet ‘pill-sick’, he puts it, ‘I’ve barely eaten in a week’. Through ‘gout-flared dreams’ and three-day mopes ‘I hobble on’, ‘the drift of a sad song never far from my head’. This itinerant convalescence comes to a head in ‘Water Street Drop-off’, the sequence’s penultimate part.
James Merrill’s ‘An Urban Convalescence’ is set in New York; our narrator’s takes place in the Connecticut house Merrill moved to from that city in 1955, located on the Water Street of Lumsden’s title. If Merrill’s work turns outwards, reflecting sickness in the perceived ugliness and waste of the world around him, Lumsden’s turns decidedly inward, evoking the mind’s subjective state in a transformed imaginative space. In terms of America’s founding poetic mother and father, if Merrill’s poem is at the Whitman end of the grand scale of purpose, using the subjective as a vehicle to reflect upon matters of the external world, Lumsden’s poem is firmly at the Dickinson end, using images from the external world to deal in matters of the self.
The poem opens in a ‘sleepless room’. Immediately we think of those states of insomnia and near-sleep which, driftingly anxious or deliriously listless, bring out an irrational, transformed imagination. Something even of Dickinson’s hearing ‘a Fly buzz’ (a facet of the external world she turns fantastically subjective) – a transmuting of the ordinary that feels closer to death, to stasis, to estrangement of body from mind. Its cardinal revelation is the newly unfamiliar surroundings of the bedchamber. A lamp neck or chair-back, now alien, now anthropomorphic; the all-consuming nature of the fly’s buzzing. Our insomniac narrator betrays a strangely compulsive examination of his own nocturnal surroundings:
Long sleepless room, roof sloping. Willing to fall under,
I measure: to floorboard, one hand, to ceiling, one foot;
windows on four sides – parallel retort;
It’s telling that even the windows, in their parallel, opposing-walled pairs, are serving up a ‘retort’ against the speaker – an indictment made of filtered streetlight perhaps, or of premature daylight? The encroaching roof and oppressive dimensions (just a hand and foot from floor to rafter) intrigue: a little investigation turns up a likely nook in Merrill’s attic studio. Here, to the right of black pianoforte and dining-table-with-vase, is a low corner 3 almost satisfying the implausible constraints meted out by the speaker’s appendages.
The strangeness of unfamiliar surroundings, the oppressiveness and sleeplessness, are soon compounded with illness – the apex of that suffering peppered through Steady Grinding Blues. There’s ‘exact pain tombstoning from temple / to jaw’, ‘the sly hack / of a week-long cough, bloodless, tart’; even the ‘gut gurns’. The pains, if not quite personified, are malevolently animated through this figuration: the cough is as ‘bloodless’ and ‘sly’ as the most insidious of coups; the movement of the head’s pain unambiguously graveward. Yet the suffering is not just an external imposition. The shock of a ‘ghost-start’ from being ‘half below’, perhaps something like the sudden sense of falling that can pull you abruptly back from near-sleep, is enough to throw the ‘front lobe halfway back from the precipice / of anima’.
So the irrational imaginative space of insomnia expands voluminously into that of illness and delirium. The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for dealing with moral choices and social consequences, for regulating the outward tendencies of the limbic system’s emotional seas, is figured at the brink of unconscious impulses, the Jungian anima. ‘Imagined marriage, past life, kismet’ are ‘glisk’ – that is, unreal momentary glimpses or gleams. The mind is forfeit: ‘wraith crews row boats of chaos through it’.
In fact, these second to fourth couplets don’t parse so unambiguously. Certainly the ‘front lobe’ is thrown back from the ‘precipice of anima’, but the ‘inner ceremony’ – is that an aspect of the precipice? Is it continuous with those two glimpsed possibilities, first of the grounded ‘past life’ and then the fanciful ‘imagined marriage’? Though these may seem to be opposed to one another, do they actually work together to evoke – collectively with ‘kismet’ – the narrator’s rumination on what was, what might have been? Is the ‘it’ the wraith crews row through so metaphorically this ‘glisk’, such that they sabotage the narrator’s already-fitful skirmish with questions of fate? Or is it the ‘front lobe’, ‘precipice’, ‘inner ceremony’? Need the reader decide?
In On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf is all for the kind of transformed imaginative space we’re dealing in – ‘when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed’ – which she associates with the literary:
In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning… Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness…
Correspondingly, the poem’s demand for negative capability only increases. To figure the narrator’s state of mind, the next image ventures into a newly associative mode: ‘sea lights are moochers: red apple, green apple…’ The earlier ‘wraith crews’ were clearly vehicle for the tenor of mental agitation, but it’s no use talking tenor and vehicle here; 4 this is stream-of-consciousness stuff. It also has something of Woolf’s mystical quality of words – ‘moochers’ exerts a fascination, putting me in mind of the ‘spool’ of Krapp’s Last Tape, and segueing perfectly into that short pomaceous reverie. I don’t know if we’re looking out from the coast 5 or maybe on an implicit sea journey, but there’s a compelling vision of illuminated buoys delineating safe passage through the dark or half-light. They’re lit red and green in turn, so through a beautiful evocation of state of mind they become ‘red apple, green apple’ – not a metaphorical image of those fruits so much as a game, a formula, a naïve phrase redolent of tongue-twisters and children at verbal play. But really, they’re just those ‘moochers’, loitering and seeming to have lost whatever rational purpose they ought to possess; on the scrounge even. They conjure a mind allowing itself to relapse a little, coping. Only veiled danger or threat is hinted at, but hot on its heels will come ‘bitching half-dark taunts’ and a ‘shock / to the neck’.
It’s worth talking a bit here about the tone and prosody of the poem – the tone it hits being pretty high and rhetorical at points, with phrases like ‘inner ceremony’, ‘precipice of anima’, ‘moment of zenith touch’ and ‘not near empty vessel’. Its formal organisation is consistently into couplets that are part- or full-rhymed. But there’s an often light and wry touch to the sound patterns (‘kismet’/‘through it’, ‘fizzing’/‘busy’), and the metrical scheme is decidedly relaxed. A number of the images likewise undercut the grandeur of the phrasing: we’ve already seen the mild, corporeal absurdity of the room-measuring process, then there’s the use of words like ‘moochers’ and ‘fizzing’, and later verbal punning like ‘wishing well’ and ‘lightweight’/‘lighthouse’. It’s not that the piece is ironic: it means business, and clearly revels in its form and its phrases. It’s more a matter of self-awareness, a knowing twinkle, a gentle undercutting – and this is important as the poem ramps up the suffering of its artist-narrator.
So a trend emerges in our speaker’s stream of febrile consciousness: an increasing self-recrimination. The description of his torso as ‘unclassical’ is wry, but that he’d serially ill-use his better self, ‘selfless mortar scoured by selfish pestle’? 6 A ‘lightweight’ in ‘regret’, ‘not much of a man’? This spiralling accusation conspires with a second trend, a crescendo of urgency, with ever shorter units of meaning and increasingly staccato delivery. The tenth and eleventh stanzas see lists of words and ultra-short phrases of decidedly disjointed or ambiguous meanings – from ‘near happy’ to ‘face down’ to ‘wishing well’. Earlier lost-at-sea imagery returns in metaphorical collusion: ‘drencher, freshet, fever, storm port roll’. Then a flurry of claustrophobic analogues – ‘crawlspace, priest hole, panic room, oubliette’ – and finally his coughs punctuated by self-accusation.
What is this crescendo for? 7 If the transformative nature of the suffering has already been exploited in the earlier stanzas’ transformed imaginative space, why now this coughing fit of self-reproach? It’s not just Woolf’s championed altered state that’s being evoked here. There is ever more focus on the figure that endures (and exploits) it.
The currency of the unwell, suffering artist is longstanding. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag traces ‘romantic agony’ through nineteenth century illnesses like TB (‘debility … transformed into languor’), in turn an ‘episode in the long career of the ancient idea of melancholy – which was the artist’s disease … sensitive, creative, a being apart’. In particular she scrutinises ‘the romantic view that illness exacerbates consciousness’, a notion Woolf still championed in 1930. Sontag is of course calling all this into question, just as recent authors have with notions of mental illness as promoting artistic creativity. (Interestingly, in 1978 Sontag identified this lineage, whereby in modern times ‘it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment’.)
The parallels of this convention of romantic agony are clear in the poorly, front lobe-ravaged narrator of ‘Water Street Drop-off’. Heightened by the poem’s voice, by its unwavering subjectivity, they resonate with the bittersweet pilgrimage of Steady Grinding Blues as a whole – and interestingly, Sontag brings a notion of itinerancy into her origins story of tubercular romantic agony:
…the myth of TB provided more than an account of creativity. It supplied an important model of bohemian life, lived with or without the vocation of the artist. The TB sufferer was a dropout, a wanderer in endless search of the healthy place. Starting in the early nineteenth century, TB became a new reason for exile, for a life that was mainly traveling.
Earlier I termed Lumsden’s narrator a flâneur, that city wanderer of self-imposed exile. Baudelaire (no stranger to proclaiming artistic suffering 8) associates this figure with Poe’s wandering convalescent and Man of the Crowd, who gazes at the throng from a coffee shop window, compelled to mingle and ‘[breathe] in all the germs and effluvia of life’: 9
…the perfect flâneur, …the passionate spectator… [is able] to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world…
For Baudelaire, the convalescent’s eye is the child’s (the child ‘always drunk’), absorbing form and colour, with inspiration akin to convulsion, a ‘violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain’. 10 There’s much of Woolf’s canonised invalid here, but a contrast to Lumsden’s flâneur. However keen his eye for the ‘sweet’ of his bittersweet milieu, Lumsden’s protagonist is reflective where Baudelaire’s is excitable; Lumsden’s melancholy where Baudelaire’s is ‘a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito’. He’s still quite Sontag’s romantic agonist, but a modern, downbeat incarnation in the sway of an intervening era’s dissatisfied and alienated voices: twentieth century blues from Steady Grinding’s Baker 11 to Berryman to Bukowski.
And of all the poems in the sequence, ‘Water Street Drop-off’ sees the most tempered version (nay, inversion; nay, introversion) of L’Homme des Foules’ passion. The coughing fit gives way to a prosodic rallentando, the poem concluding in resigned reflection:
donate the hustling brain as a grimoire
in which the small hours screed their black memoir.
Here, we might take ‘screed’ as a verbed noun, as in discourse or rant, or as a plain verb – to rip or tear. Either way, the night’s effects are viciously inscribed into the victim’s feverish and ill-used mind (as in, roughly handled, ‘hustling’). Yet the waters of prosody are calm now: in resignation the narrator donates his brain for this purpose; he suffers for this purpose. And the purpose is the writing of a book of spells.
Now as we know, such a book – if ars poetica were the narrator’s medium of exchange – might be called a collection. The relationship of author to narrator must raise its head here: after all, Steady Grinding Blues’ sources are plainly autobiographical, 12 each poem a reflection on a place really visited. And if the crescendo of ‘Water Street Drop-off’ turns the spotlight hard onto its woeful protagonist, the rallentando signals writerly acceptance of the process, the resignation that something be made of it – foreshadowing tranquillity in which suffering might be recollected, written down and redeemed.
But we’ll not equate the author with the speaking voice too hastily. Even in the most autobiographical of poems, this voice retains its independence: however honest or confessional, the first-person is realised through a controlled tone, a stance, a projection. The author is exceeded by his own simulacrum, a figure you might say is sui generis – Lumsden’s here being substantially mediated by the form and manner of his poem. In its rhetorical highs, the piece conjures those echoes of romantic agony; at the same time it establishes an essential rhetorical distance, and the aforementioned undercutting and self-awareness contextualises its intent.
So the sometimes grand phrasing, the extravagant tropes of suffering, those boats of chaos ravaging the cerebrum, tap into an understood and acknowledged mode of exposition, a substantial legacy. Even the sequence’s title, Steady Grinding Blues, 13 attests to what you’ll expect to find there: the blues the protagonist will unreservedly be singing. The poem relishes what it’s up to: its vivid interpretation of autobiographical events, the agonist’s heritage from Romantics through to blues musicians, the word and sound play, the imagery that it brings to what otherwise (like the blues without the music) would be a pretty drear table.
And within the world of the poem, the simulacrum’s substitution for the author is total. Even if you take the poem itself to be the product of those small hours’ screeding – a page in the grimoire – no matter. The speaker is a poet and such a reflexive gift is his to give. That some years ago the author Lumsden really was ill in Stonington, that the self-recrimination of the narrator may have reflected the author’s own self-recriminations, is another matter. Maybe it leaves a frisson, the kind of frisson you get when biography and literature touch. As with any poet who goes through an experience, unwelcome at the time, and says to herself one day I’ll get a poem out of this, once committed the poem diverges from her, takes on its own life and eradicates all but its own conjured world.
That the studio of one of America’s leading 20th century poets is the locus of ‘Water Street Drop-off’ provides its own frisson. Merrill’s pianoforte looms over the proceedings throughout: ‘a dismal oblong, the writer’s piano / rehearses stasis’. We have the literal piano in the studio, a musical instrument in a ‘rehearsal’; however, unplayed and silent, it can be rehearsing only stasis. Then we have the piano seen through the narrator’s transformed perception: its dismal shape and demeanour in the darkened room, metonym for the oppression of the night as a whole. And finally we have the ‘writer’s piano’ (my italics) representing the process of composition and creation – it being to music as the typewriter is to Merrill’s art. (Might the ‘zenith touch’ be that of the poet/pianist at the celestial apex of his powers?) It’s the still moment between musical notes – a silence between phrases, a hiatus in composition – that becomes the gift handed down to the apartment’s unanticipated guest, sleeplessly drawn out into the whole of his long and not-untroubled night.
James Merrill House, Stonington, CT
Long sleepless room, roof sloping. Willing
to fall under, I measure: to floorboard, one hand, to ceiling,
one foot; windows on four sides – parallel retort;
aching, gape-eyed, half below, ghost-start
throws front lobe halfway back from the precipice
of anima, my inner ceremony, glisk
of imagined marriage, past life, kismet:
wraith crews row boats of chaos through it;
exact pain tombstoning from temple
to jaw; sea lights are moochers: red apple, green apple;
the bitching half-dark taunts, the sly hack
of a week-long cough, bloodless, tart – shock
to the neck, thoughtless, to this unclassical torso;
a dismal oblong, the writer’s piano
rehearses stasis; one moment of zenith touch
but in the next I long to pull the switch,
cast blackout in this not near empty vessel,
selfless mortar scoured by selfish pestle;
face down, near happy, cold coiled, fizzing;
hindsight waves its one colour flag, busy
systems catch, gut gurns, wishing well,
drencher, freshet, fever, storm port roll
down crawlspace, priest hole, panic room, oubliette;
COUGH lightweight COUGH lighthouse COUGH regret
COUGH not much of a man – enough of this –
tug up the comforter, engaging bliss,
donate the hustling brain as a grimoire
in which the small hours screed their black memoir.
From Terrific Melancholy (Bloodaxe, 2011). Reproduced with permission of the author.