Love and the gene pool
I'm still recovering from the party we held on Saturday to celebrate Aneirin's second birthday. Although the event was more or less alcohol-free, much to the disappointment of certain adult guests, and was over by five o'clock, when our son and his mates had chased, fought, dug, and splashed themselves to early bedtimes, it has left me more hungover than any of the all-night boozy bashes of my youth.
I spent much of Saturday afternoon jogging around our back garden, going from the sandpit to the paddling pool to the plum trees and back again, mediating in disputes over cones of ice cream, repairing diggers and air planes whose gears had become jammed by half-eaten lollipops, and reprimanding Aneirin for his habit of hurling handfuls of sand at anybody who challenged his control of the pit. When I wasn't attending to these official and solemn duties I attempted to follow a labyrinthine conversation - two of its recurring topics seemed to be Tongan politics and the proper rearing of pigs - between Paul Janman, Taniela Vao, and Hamish Dewe.
I mention all this in the hope that I can get away with posting a poem here, in place of the sort of worthy piece of prose with which more serious and organised bloggers like to begin the week.
Last year I posted a couple of excerpts from the little anthology of poems about kids that Cerian and I put together as a Christmas present for relatives and friends. In the era of facebook, many people are daily confronted by scores of photos of disgustingly cute youngsters - grandchildren, cousins, nephews, nieces, and the offspring of friends and acquaintances and workmates and celebrities - but Cerian and I figured that if we paired our photos of Aneirin and his mates with pieces of fine literature then we might make our product stand out in a crowded marketplace.
We argued, of course, about which texts to include in our publication. Cerian was keen on a poem by the legendary Welsh boozer Dylan Thomas, while I demanded something by his abstemious and under-rated countryman and namesake, the Reverend RS Thomas. I was determined to include one of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, a series of thirty prose poems in which memories of the poet's 1940s childhood in Worcestershire leak into dreams of King Offa, who ruled the English Midlands a millennium and a quarter ago, but Cerian was initially dismayed by the bizarre and macabre phrases - 'Thor, butcher of strawberries' and the like - that punctuate Hill's hymns.
I was able to get RS Thomas and Geoffrey Hill into our anthology, but the door remained closed to one of the poems I'd proposed, JH Prynne's eerie 'Acquisition of Love'.
Prynne is not a poet I normally enjoy. He has lived and taught for decades in the picturesque and neurotic town of Cambridge, where a circle of explicator-disciples has gathered around him. In long essays published in academic journals and on blogs, Prynne's admirers carefully separate and analyse the various discourses - economic, biological, meteorological, metallurgical - that grow together in his hedge-like texts. A typical Prynne poem might begin with some notes on the prehistoric pollen spores that were discovered inside an artefact disinterred from the Cambridgeshore Fens by archaeologists, then turn without warning into an account of the problems of building a centrally planned economy in Soviet Mongolia, then look up at the heavens, and describe the counter-clockwise movements of clouds above one of Cambridge's dreary dreaming spires, then return, without any explanation, to that flint-shard pulled from the bog.
In 'Acquisition of Love', though, one can figuratively and literally hear Prynne's heart beating. The poem, which Prynne published in the 1969 volume The White Stones, investigates the state of anxious joyousness known as parenthood. Sitting on the front step of his home attempting to mend a lawn mower, surrounded by his curious children, Prynne ponders, in his restlessly erudite way, the relationship between an emotion as urgent and apparently personal as love and the vast, seemingly disinterested processes of the universe, like the growth and decline of stars and the evolution of species. The poet's distressed awareness of his inability to protect his children from these processes is tempered a little by his awareness of the safety they now enjoy, as they spend a fine summer's day in their English garden.
Reading 'Acquisition of Love', we may suddenly feel estranged from what had been most familiar. The faces of our children 'switch on and off' like machines; our bodies no longer belong to us, but are vehicles for blood and genes; the warmth we feel in our hearts is 'borrowed', rather than autochthonous. This defamiliarisation can be alarming, but it has some of the terrible beauty of Blake's great visions. Like Blake's angels and tygers, Prynne's teeming gene pools and 'dream-like membranes' show us the majesty of the universe, and invite us to reconsider our place within that universe.
Acquisition of Love
The children rise & fall as they
watch, they burn in the sun's coronal
display, each child is the fringe
& he advances at just that blinding
gradient. As I try to mend the broken
mower, its rachet jammed somewhere
inside the crank-case, I fell the
blood all rush in a separate spiral,
each genetically confirmed in the
young heartlands beyond. The curious
ones have their courses set towards
fear & collapse, faces switch on &
off, it is not any image of learning
but the gene pool itself defines these
lively feelings. I get the casing off,
sitting on the flat stone slab by the
front door, you would think fortunes
could be born here & you would
be wrong. Their childish assertion is
bleeding into the centre, we are determined
that they shall do this: they look outwards
to our idea of the planet. Their blood
is battered by this idea, the rules for
the replication of pattern guide their dreams
safely into our dreams. The two rachets
are both rusted in; I file out their
slots & brush out the corroded
flakes with oil. They watch, &
what they watch has nothing to do
with anything. What they do is an
inherited print, I lend it to them
just by looking; their blood
seems to hold out against the complete
neuro-chemical entail. I guess their
capacity in pints, their dream-like membranes
which keep their faces ready to see. The
mower works now, related to nothing
but the hand & purpose, the fear of
collapse is pumped round by each linked
system & the borrowed warmth of the heart.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]