Sitting as it does above a poem about a cool, contemporary world, a title like ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’ sounds anachronistic. I hear echoes of ‘A Nocturnall Upon St Lucie’s Day’, ‘Verses On the Death of Dr Swift’ and so on. What role can occasional poetry play, George asks, now that poetry has ceased to happen occasionally? Art and song have become so bound up in other forms of contemporary cultural experience that the critical task of judging how to respond to them – ‘a sculpture of two people kissing should dare / a timid heart to back itself’ – has to be supplemented by simply identifying them: ‘I / should know the name of this song’. In such a world, any sense of a song’s particular origin can be occluded: after a brief, ‘homely’ acknowledgement that a tune is ‘Anglophonic’, it simply becomes the Fiat’s for the rest of the poem; it may have also been heard ‘with’, significantly no longer on or through, ‘a talent show’. This occlusion might stop us from appreciating that the place where songs emerge from is, fundamentally, mysterious: allowing a song to be ‘nothing less / than the Glory of Love’, for all that it allows a total overlap of medium with message, might distract us from letting love remain somehow inexpressible, ‘a mute glory’.
Can the traditional model, of the poet who distinctively and difficultly shapes mute experience into a poem, be reclaimed? The conventional marks of lyric poetry no longer seem entirely appropriate. If a lyric is defined as an ‘I’ addressing a ‘you’, its most direct instances in this poem come as interruptions. The line ending with ‘I belong to you’ becomes the only one in its stanza to end on a vowel, and disrupts an otherwise cohesive set of end-words, in which each shares at least one phoneme with another. ‘You belong to me’ abruptly shuts down an emerging set of end- and internal rhymes, ‘to anything’ with ‘so lacking’, ‘blancmange’ with ‘demands’. The other rare moments when ‘I’ and ‘you’ are brought together within a grammatical structure equally feel like platitudes: ‘you’re my luck’, ‘you’re my sweetheart’, ‘ain’t no stopping us’. The only way in which lyric address can be reclaimed is apparently through distance and irony, through a speaker declaring that the addressee is ‘far’ off while she is addressed, transforming her into a ‘sculpture’ but one still ‘blooming into flesh and breath’.
This second privilege of the lyric poet, to transform lived experience by creating original metaphors, is ironised most clearly in the fourth stanza: here, an elaborate extended conceit is itself bloated, uncomfortable in its excess, a pudding over-egged. It’s a sensation achieved through a combination of the very choice of subject matter and its status as the only such conceit in the poem. Elsewhere, George’s ability to perform the expected metaphorical thinking breaks down. He is ultimately unable to find an imaginative point of reference with which to describe the sculpture, because the description ‘a weight of metal that stuck in my chest’ has already elided literal and figurative understandings of weight. Sometimes, the arrangement of his literal descriptions of the world work against the images that a reader’s own patterns of cognition might be inclined to form. So soon after the unusual image of ‘a baby mauling the sides of his pram’, the references to his dad simultaneously ‘lipping’ and ‘thumbing’ objects might faintly evoke a description of a more conventional infantile activity, one which the poem itself never presents.
If the possibility of appropriate-sounding lyric metaphors is lost, it is because we have become used to accepting that our whole experience is subsumed under metaphors we live by: it might seem grotesque to think quite so hard about life as a meal but, by this point in the poem, a description of music as ‘fruity’ and one’s self as ‘a honey trap for wasps’ has already passed us by; it is easy, in conversation, to describe wasps as ‘bug[ging] me’ without appreciating the pun that George quietly intends. It is these kinds of ironic gesture that seem the poem’s most virtuosic and graceful, that go down most easily – but this grace can only be recognised because of the contrast that they establish with the laboured digestion conceit, just as George’s fleeting subtle approach to traditions of lyric address is exposed as a counterpoint to the banal one favoured by pop songs.
George’s poem succeeds insofar as it does not – quite – live up to its claim to surrender any ‘friction’ in the face of ‘sickly charms’, charms which are offered both by contemporary culture and those established conventions of lyric which are apparently detached from that culture, but which might have come to influence it. Its music is somewhere between the barely-noticed car muzak which forms the texture of the contemporary world and The Rites of Spring, whose hardcore punk aesthetic insistently rejects this texture. It is a fine balance executed through George’s use of metre. While his local management of rhythmic patterning is masterful, he moves in and out of these patterns in a manner that feels spontaneous and artless. The final stanza, for example, eventually falls into a steady iambic pentameter, characterised in all of its last three lines by dropped initial syllables and interpolated stresses (on both syllables in each of ‘one month’, ‘halfway’, ‘I did-’). Its opening line, however, can’t quite be scanned as such, though it would only take the removal of ‘though’ to allow it to fit easily with the lines that immediately follow. The experience of this first line’s rhythm is illusion-shattering, more akin to noticing when ‘the osteria flips the disc’ than to the pleasing set of variations executed by Teddy Pendergrass ‘over his chorus line’.
The most spectacular shattering of metrical illusion, and of political self-delusion, comes when seven lines of anapaestic tetrameter – a metre we are conditioned to think of as not resembling real speech – gives way to a line opening on two consecutive stresses: ‘nerve gas’, really being fired elsewhere. It might feel crass to suggest that a shift in a poem’s rhythm serves as an imitation of a gas attack but, just as he does with his comparison of living to gorging himself, George has created a poem which can inhabit both the idea and its crassness simultaneously. Rhythm can be understood as somehow in the air, but also ultimately experienced somatically; poetic rhythm alters the body’s ability to construct and respond to meaning. Yet this shift is nevertheless just one (very extreme) example of the kind of rhythmic variation that has occurred throughout the poem, and more regular patterns will resume as the poem continues into its second half.
Furthermore, these local sites of adjustment and staged violence mask a deeper coherence in George’s musical thinking, one that might emerge unconsciously and remain mysterious even to him. After using the word ‘strum’ to describe the Fiat’s song twice within the poem’s first half, and perhaps bolstered by the play of ‘pram’ against ‘thumbing’ when describing the ‘likely dad’, words ending in ‘m’ continue to be associated with the Fiat song’s quotidian recurrence: it is ‘homely’, a ‘jam’ and a ‘noodly hum’. I’d dare to argue that the tension between resisting and submitting to the ‘sickly charm’ of modernity’s debased lyric comes to rest within the recurrence of this phoneme: by maintaining deeper, private music throughout the poem, George can reach a point of ‘calm’ where he can, now sincerely, ‘affirm / you’re my sweetheart’. In a contingent contemporary world, where, to paraphrase Marshall Berman, all that is solid (like George’s sculpture) might melt into air and vice versa, the very occasion of writing a lyric might secure a crucial site of double resistance.
The osteria’s blasting jazz, the slick and fruity
after-hours sort, and down the street a Fiat stereo
fronts up with a folksy Anglophonic strum.
I’m down with it all; I’m a honey trap for wasps
snuffling the grains in my espresso cup,
but those bastards don’t bug me anymore. No,
the dread in this young daddio’s soul derives
mainly from the monoglotic cringe that comes
in proffering twenty per un grande bicchiere
and hearing, ‘Do you have any smaller change?’
It’s hard to start again. On the way here,
a sculpture of two people kissing was less
a weight of metal that stuck in my chest
I know this Fiat song – I heard it first
one Friday night at home with a talent show,
where the person singing it was good as blind
and her mentor boogied in the aisles.
Today is a first bite of well-hung steak,
the middle third commencing in a long life’s
lunch. I chowed down the starters in a haze
and felt myself bloat like a puppy seal
but today is marbled and glossy and rare.
Two tables across, a blitz of girls
could be fifteen or twenty, happy or stuck,
with a baby mauling the sides of his pram
and the red-capped dad, or likely dad,
lipping a roll-up, thumbing his phone.
A sculpture of two people kissing should dare
a timid heart to back itself, and I
should know the name of this song,
this warbly, flighty, homely strum,
just as a jazz cat should know when to stop,
and a wasp should be smooth to the rump, and my luck
should be turning, not turning the world on its head
and a boy should feel lucky he’s drinking, not dead,
or at least that he’s watching impossible wars
play out from the terrace of hill-town bars
on a boot-shaped peninsula, not one that fires
nerve gas on its residential zones.
My luck is fine. You’re my luck. I’m living
through the end of luck, and today,
though far from me, you’re still the sculpture
blooming into flesh and breath.
No, the guy’s not the dad, anymore than
the venerable pair on the suntrap bench
are married, or kin to the gurgling kid,
for all that they’ll pop over now and check
if the mama’s helping him grow up strong,
if the guy’s got a light, if he saw what went on
at Juve this Sunday, and – I belong to you –
I’m digging the hell outta this Fiat jam,
for all that it makes the noodly hum
behind me sound like the Rites of Spring.
In younger days, when opinions were crisp,
astringent as radicchio, I’d make myself
immune to its sickly charms, to anything
Sunnyside-up and blancmange, so lacking
in phobia, friction, demands, but – You belong to me –
it floats over to me now as nothing less
than the Glory of Love. The old boy raps
pink sports pages on the tabletop. Cuore Kaka. Milan è casa mia. His young friend
shrugs and arranges his scarlet cap
in an opposite sideways angle and laughs.
Today’s been flashed on the griddle and served.
The osteria flips the disc. Teddy Pendergrass
gets jiggy all over his chorus line. Kaka’s
come home. Ain’t no stopping us now,
and, as the Fiat down the street affirms,
you’re my sweetheart. What a mute glory
love is. It’s here, it’s the bench, it’s a statue
and a dog, loping to where the old boy goes
when the sun sends him in for a kip.
Ain’t no stopping us, sweetheart, though only now
do I hear the modesty in the boast. The calm.
It means no more than we’ll get to the next.
Summer here has one month left in pomp.
Halfway down my second beer, this wasp
grazed my knuckle and I didn’t flinch.
“I was looking at the notes, thinking about where this part might go or that part might go, thinking about rearranging it. And then a portal opened in my head, and it just went, choo, choo, choo, choo. I moved my hand and it just wrote itself.”
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 fro ...