This is a joyous poem. It is the perfect end to the weekend; exercise and leisure; social but speechless. A neverending from which we can just walk away, with the half-shrug of a Larkinesque final bonus rhyme that is lazy and comfortable and true.
The action that feels good feels like dancing, and feeling like we’re dancing makes those actions easier. Music moves us, but it is made by the moves we make. Theme is a tightrope; variation is the same tightrope made slack as we dare.
Music worries me, physical pleasure gives me tremors, rhyme is such a dictator… but on a Sunday afternoon? Just let it go, take a stroll through the park.
First, those introductory lines, positing an idea (‘the world offers itself in love’), positioning the scene (a park on a Sunday) and posing a question.
We open on ‘So’, so often derided as a verbal tic in conversation – but I love it. ‘So’ is open and generous, so much so, an offered door, creaking wider – slow, although, so… At the same time so abrupt, so matter-of-fact and decided – no, go, so.
However long we linger on that first syllable, the line itself stretches, expands, opens its hands with a colon and becomes a frame which is by its nature subservient to the content of the poem, but also wider.
Then that ‘oom-pah-pah’, almost impossible to read without at least thinking the repeat. Literally a musical revving up and a quickening of the pace – slightly assuaged by ‘under the cherry tree’, but that line-ending full stop only pushes us forward more quickly.
‘What could be more ordinary?’ Indeed. A miniature version of that final, devastating shrug.
I can tell the slightly frantic hover of a kestrel, the pitch exactly that of my cat’s tail as she solicits food. I can spot a bird at distance or with my glasses off and from its movement I know it is a magpie patrolling or a bobbling blackbird. I may then doubt myself, seek confirmation, but in that moment I know, knew, because of the way it moves, although I have never before seen this particular bird move in this particular way.
Why does Lewis call her sequence ‘Parables and Faxes’? Partly, I suspect, just for the sound. It is both grandiose and deflating, flits between odd and funny and silly. Lewis likes her sequences to have scope, she keeps them as wide and rangy as everything.
Parables are word-images which illustrate a moral. A fax is an exact replica of an original, transmitted through the telephone system in the form of audio-frequency tones to be reconstructed at the other end. Both are messages.
Now the theme. From the bandstand we cast our eyes on the wider scene. Again one of those lovely flitting, unfaithful words to open. ‘But’ throws us an abstract idea as if it was as simple and solid as a ball: ‘time divided the music like this’. And then another colon, the welcoming arms or ejecting hands.
Next, ‘To open, an easy ball was thrown.’ Easy? The ball was easy? The throw was easy? The thrower was at ease? The catcher was at ease? The shot is straightforward enough to describe and for us to see?
Two longish clauses with commas like catching gloves, the first gentle exchanges. Even ‘a laugh’ has a certain length because of those vowels, can’t be cruel here, but must be joyous – funny how clever our bodies are.
At this stage the ball lingers in the air, between catches, long enough to take an interjection (‘two children (related) running around’).
But meanwhile the ball game and the band are speeding up and the scene is invaded by ‘a dog who can’t get enough’, dragging with him a slobbered stick called synaesthesia: ‘municipal smells from the yellow sound’. This is a little crisis in the verse, easily skipped over but the lineation emphasises its strangeness.
There is no time to wonder though, because now it all ‘starts to repeat’. The clauses are quicker, higher, more unlikely, until commas are shaken off completely. The projection is straight and fast: ‘the girl runs round on her own / followed by the dog with the lolloping tongue.’ The music is dying away suddenly – have we moved away from it? Surely the girl’s own-ness merits more than a tongue? That dog should have a bone, in dogged pursuit of the obvious rhyme.
Rhyme echoes through Lewis’s poetry. Stuff ‘rhymes with’ other stuff, in a way only objects in paintings usually do. Things are ‘like stanzas’ or whole poems.
The iridescent epicuticle of some beetles is created by layers stacked up at slanted angles, bending and reflecting the light. Other forms of iridescence work in different ways. Really we don’t actually know for sure what purpose iridescence serves. It could be to attract a mate, to blend with the background, or to dazzle and confuse the eye of predators – birds for example.
Ready? OK, ‘then the reprise’, the colon is a quick whistle blow, by now we know the drill. With the ‘ball in an arc’ the game of catch continues. And because this time it is ‘not fumbled now but moving free’ the children who appear must needs be numbered ‘three’. Equally necessarily, they ‘(must be one family)’, related by their positions, composition, ‘chased by the music’.
A little lull, short but deep: ‘the sun goes in, / world goes flat, dog takes a break’.
He should never have taken a break, it too nearly echoes back – and so now the children are back. The tables have turned; once pursued by the music, they are now chasing it: ‘each one a repeat / with variations and, in their wake’… Of course ‘their wake’, ever since that dog was stupid enough to make the mistake of taking a break the circle has moved both ways, the music following and leaving a trace, echoing itself back into place.
All this allows for a real crisis, a line of such madness it is utter beauty: ‘a blackbird bounding as crescendo and ball’. Where the hell did that blackbird come from? Bounding: to move with great scope, to limit. We look up to see the projectile seemingly static at its apex: ‘crescendo and ball’ – for a millisecond it makes sense, that long syllable hanging there – all, call, ball.
But what goes up… ball is already fall, surely? And sure enough the next line rights us, puts us back on track. A swift movement to shove the players back into order, a couple of quick rhymes, ‘dog yapping, happy’. But oddly enough, since he catches the ball, it doesn’t have to fall.
And having caught it in ‘the doily shade of the cherry tree’ we must go back to the bandstand where like that skied ball ‘the baton bears out eternity / for a moment’. And we must then ‘go home for tea’ because rhyme and rhythm make it necessary.
‘Charmed’ is a word we use most often now to mean fortunate; like bewitchment, it has lost its fearful sense of being acted upon. We invite magicians to parties.
In The Meat Tree, Lewis’s retelling of the story of Blodeuwedd from the Mabinogion, there is a passage about the sibling enemies Gwydion and Aranrhod. Disguised as a poet Gwydion is invited in to Aranrhod’s court:
They have a good time as they’re a match for each other. For every story that Gwydion tells, Aranrhod knows another. And it gets very late and the drink is flowing. You know the kind of night. When the sugar in the booze keeps you up, more awake than you’ve been all day and life is funny and fits neatly into your stories. Then everything’s suddenly unbearably sad and a song is called for.
The thing is Gwydion has only been pretending to drink.
The rhyme scheme in ‘Sunday Park’ is a stitch-up. A net made of several sets of long, crossed over stitches; tight enough to keep the poem together, but loose and easy enough to flex. A lacy tension.
The ‘doily shade of the cherry tree’ anticipates, deliciously, the tea – or the knowledge of a tea to come cooks up a doily from the tree. The end of the week – ‘what could be more ordinary’, a variation on an endless theme. Sunday afternoon in the park needs Monday morning at work. Ball games need gravity.
So the world offers itself in love:
A park on a Sunday with a simple band,
oom-pah-pah under the cherry tree.
What could be more ordinary?
But time divided the music like this:
To open, an easy ball was thrown,
caught with the lunge of a skirt, a laugh,
two children (related) running around
pursued by a dog who can’t get enough
municipal smells from the yellow sound
which starts to repeat – the ball gets thrown,
till, this time, the girl runs round on her own
followed by the dog with a lolloping tongue.
Then the reprise: ball in an arc,
not fumbled now but moving free
from one hand to another, the dog, then three
youngsters (must be one family)
chased by the music; the sun goes in,
world goes flat, dog takes a break,
but the children are back, each one a repeat
with variations and, in their wake,
a blackbird bounding as crescendo and ball
arch over the moment and let them all through,
toddler chasing the other two,
dog yapping, happy having caught a ball
in the doily shade of the cherry tree
where the baton bears out eternity
for a moment before we went home for tea.
From Parables and Faxes (Bloodaxe, 1995). Reproduced with permission of the author.