Reading, one letter at a time
One man who has no trouble with looking closely at works of art is the poet, Sinologist, and 'wedding artist' Hamish Dewe. Although he tends to look at and write about poems rather than paintings, Hamish's powers of observation can serve as an inspiration for lovers of both art forms.
As a poet and a literary critic, Hamish works with a deliberate slowness. Particularly fastidious writers are often said to work 'one word at a time'; Hamish, though, seems to operate one letter at a time. The shape - or, as he likes to say, the architecture - of individual letters, and the sounds of vowels, consonants, and dipthongs are matters which continually preoccupy him. Hamish's interest in the sounds in our mouths and the shape of our scripts is not the product of some sort of disillusionment with literature's traditional function of creating and communicating meaning. When he writes and reads poems, Hamish is not interested in foregoing argument, narrative, plot, and the other pieces of cognitive architecture in which meaning can subsist - on the contrary, he is interested in how patterns of sounds and shapes can enhance meaning.
Hamish reads with such care, and has so many responsibilities besides the ones he inevitably finds as a careful reader of often carelessly-written literature, that he seldom produces extended pieces of literary criticism nowadays. Legendary texts like his Masters thesis on the American postmodernist and Marxist political activist Bruce Andrews, and his supernaturally attentive study of Joanna Paul's childbirth-poem Imogen, have given way to curt e mails to writers who privately seek his opinion on their work.
I thought I'd post an e mail I recently received from Hamish as an example of the powers of attention he brings to his reading. Hamish sent me the e mail after I sent him a poem I had written about the gruesome adventures of the masochists who attempted to discover a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the nineteenth century. I'd dashed off the poem after reading a review of Glyn Williams' Arctic Passage, a book which describes the Franklin Expedition, which left London full of high hopes and jingoistic rhetoric in 1845, and ended up as a series of shallow graves and a pile of suspiciously-marked bones on the shores of Hudson Bay. Like Robert Burke, who chose a warmer wilderness to invade, and who consequently had fewer opportunities to experiment with cannibalism as a survival strategy, Franklin was a victim of the almost limitless hubris of nineteenth century imperialism.
I'll post my poem, followed by Hamish's response.
Our ship froze
before the sea.
Eyebrows turned white,
beards grew as slowly
as lichen, slower than
light. Nature is
We marched west, feasted
our boots collected.
When the lichen faded
we feasted on boots.
The first body was cooked
in ice, burned
by frostbite, dissected
by hunting knives.
We sat in a circle,
with our eyes, our mouths
We gave the bones
a decent burial.
Not naff, but a little slight, I think.
I do like the sestina-like repetition that feeds (pun intended) into my sense of the circularity, 'worms that feast on the flesh of kings'-style. I really want to take the 'as' out of "beards grew as slowly". I know it mangles modern english usage, but it flows so much better, don't you think?, and adds to the glacial inevitability of the phrasing. Is there anything to be gained by breaking the aphorism "Nature is / supernatural" into two lines? I do, however, love the phrasing of "We marched west, feasted", just the alternating vowels.
Why does lichen fade, instead of plainly run out?, devoured, gone?
I don't know if it's the intention, but stanza 3, to my mind, gives the victim a sacrificial quality that seems undercut by the coldness of "dissected".
I'm in two minds whether I'd prefer the final sentence to have more of a hurried, throwaway quality (which it would have if given only one line), as if the speaker wants to quickly put this distasteful (another willful pun) episode behind him, or whether it should be expanded and take on the role of explaining and excusing his actions.
Plenty of thoughts, thanks Hamish, and one in particular: would you like to review Emma Smith, a brushstroke at a time?