"A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something." Paul Celan
"At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee. Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book—the message in the bottle—because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland. To the Reader Setting Out The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth. The reader is what Wallace Stevens calls “the scholar of one candle.” Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder. “Beginning is not only a kind of action,” Edward Said writes in Beginnings, “it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness.” I love the frame of mind, the playful work and working playfulness, the form of consciousness—the dreamy attentiveness—that come with the reading of poetry." From How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch
Posting on a collection of poems is the most challenging blogging task I assume. I recently read a magnificent book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch. I wanted very much to read a collection of poetry in a fashion inspired by this book. On Light and Carbon by Noel Duffy provided me the perfect vehicle for my efforts. Wearing a deep knowledge very subtly Duffy has produced a collection of poems that can be read over and over with increasing pleasure. I am not technically educated in the mechanics of poetry. I do not feel this as a lack but others might see it as such. My approach here will be to post on what strikes me as I read. I will as I go on try to find what one might call the overriding themes of the poems but above all I will try to enjoy them and read them with the respect they deserve. One lesson I learned from Edward Hirsch was to see a poem as a message in a bottle, sent out by an unknown writer to an unknown reader but not truly complete until the bottle is found by the right person. In reading poetry I attempt to be the unknown reader to whom the message in the bottle was sent. This does mean I will try to reconstruct the world of the unknown bottle messenger, not to guess the real writer's intentions.
Footprints on Lava
The opening poem, "Footprints on Lava" starts us with a mystery. Are these walkers from forty thousand years ago our messenger is it they who are to receive the message of the progression of civilization. Are we to see within this our buried deeply in the sea from which the message came ancestors. On our first reading of the collection we can only ponder this beautiful starting poem.
The second poem in the collection, "Earthrise" is as far in time from the first. It is told in the person of an astronaut who was it seems the first to orbit the earth in a space capsule. The profundity of this poem lies in the speaker's ability to produce thoughts that could have been understood thousands of years ago
As I read this I knew few of the technicians who made this flight possible would understand the source and meaning of the reference to the music of the spheres. I almost felt our walkers across the lava were just as much exploring an unknown world. Maybe we have lost our ability to hear the music of the spheres. I think Duffy is trying to help us retrain our senses to allow us to hear what Plato wrote about. There is a greater music in the silence than in Bach or Mozart. We need the silence of deep space or the lava walker's world to hear it.
On Light and Carbon
The title poem can be seen as in the voice of the poet. We learn from Hirsch the concept of the poet involves our construction of the unknown author of the message in the bottle. In it we meet a young man open to the marvels of the world, pondering where a tree originates and pondering the tension between a priest's account of the origin of the world and a scientist. Already he knows it is not logic that decides what we believe.
Our poet went to Trinity College in Dublin. The next two poems are reflective of this experience.
This is a poem so beautiful I wish I could just quote all three pages. It is very deeply moving. A professor is teaching a class in celestial mechanics to a class room full of mostly first year engineering students. He is old enough to have fought the Germans. To most of the young students he is a subject to be mocked. The poet and a few others walk back to the office with him, ashamed of their fellow students. I see the professor as attempting to show his young charges how to hear in the celestial mechanics the music of the spheres. His forgiveness of his mockers makes one think of f his great depth compassion. He has a wisdom born of pain.
Trinity College has a special meaning for the Irish, for some it is the school of Samuel Beckett, for others it is where their family has gone for generations, for some it is an entry to a privileged world which will open up new worlds to them. In "Trinity Ball" our poet discovers passion with a female student of the privileged classes.
Cadmus was the first king of Thrales, slaying beasts in the days before Hercules, most notably giant snakes as depicted on this ancient vase. In reading a poetry collection we can be illuminated by recurring images, the deeper buried, the more significant. In a poet which occurs prior to "Cadmus", "Carbon, there is a reference to the professor who first provided as an explanatory the notion that the carbon atom, the foundation for life, could be seen as a great snake. Snake metaphors as figures of creation predate Christisnity, especially in India and South East Asis.
"Cadmus" is another set on Trinity poem. Cadmus is what the students call an eccentric older professor of the classics.
Like others in the poems, Cadmus has entered another world, understanding too much has deprived
him of his ability to seem sane. Cadmus made me think of the writings of W. G. Sebald on Holocaust survivors.
For a bit I just want to take a quick look at some things that struck me in the next the next few poems.
In a poem of memoir about an old love, "Keepsake", there is a reference to the sea I found very illuminating.
"‘Do you remember the sea, the waves lapping at our feet". The poet has made sure we know these are Irish poems. The sea has a deep meaning for Ireland. It protects the country and also was a highway for old invaders. Look far enough and maybe you will see the Vikings or the hated Cromwell, maybe even the coming of the Travellers.
The invention of the mass produced clock might have destroyed some of the mystery of life. It also made a work day in which people were slaves to the clock on the factory floor a reality. We see this in "On Time". One of the message of these poems is the lose of mystery, or the ways in which what seems to be scientific knowledge is just old metaphors from our atavistic roots.
"Photograph" seemingly steps back being about the wedding of the poets parents. But in reality it invokes childhood myths or thoughts about things the most sophisticated among us cannot really fathom, the time before we were born.
Corridor of Stone
"Corridor of Stone" is a poem I found beautiful and deeply moving, able to touch deep levels within this reader. Here are the opening lines
We see glimpses of the poet's relationship with his father, a maker and repairer of fine watches and clocks. I think the occupation of the father is significant as it somehow combines the elements of an artist, a craftsmen in the figure of a person to be often seen just as a laborer by those of limited understanding, just as the makers of Romanov eggs, often bound serfs, were once viewed. I recall in previous poems of Duffy a sense of how the education his father had sacrificed to give him had somehow created a distance between he and his father. Both are saddened by this but neither spoke of it directly.
In "Corridor of Stone" PJ and the father, they met during a labor strike, bond from an interest in Irish antiquities, especially the runes on stone monoliths. One can see this as aligned with trying to decipher another message, to communicate with the descendants of those who left their footprints in the love. The rune writers I see as ancient ancestors of the Poet's father.
In this wonderful poem a story is told of the poet's father and his friend PJ doing evacuation work on a place that is discovered to be an ancient Viking seltlement. During lunch breaks they shift through the tons of earth looking for Viking artifacts. The father brings home the shoe of a child. As I said earlier, the mind of the poet goes back in a time before there is real history.
Longships, spaceships, the opening of physics,love and classics at Trinity, walkers in the lava, Cadmus slashing the great snake of carbon.
"Encounters" is one of several poems in the collection that draw on ancient history. The roots of our poet are in the chambers of the priests of religions really now barely known, the so called "mystery cults".
"‘What is surmised but not expressed is more frightening. What is clear and manifest is easily despised... The mysteries too take the form of allegory, just as they are performed at night in darkness.’ – Demetrius, 6th Century BCE".
We are there when he enters a shaman's chamber. Was he truly on a path to a not taught at Trinity truth or was he just another seeker after an easy way, bambozzled by a perhaps self deluded holy person.
Twenty five hundred years of "science" is either ignored or transcended in this magnificent poem.
The next poem in the collection, "Faith Healer" flashed me to my recent reading of a very detailed biography of Madame Blatsky, the famous occultist. In this poem in part we are along when the poet's father takes him to visit a faith healer. Occultism and spiritualism were revived in Europe in response to the early death of millions after the World Wars. Years later he travels by train back to the faith healer. His soul is troubled. Our poet hopes the faith healer can lead to him peace but he feels contempt for him.
A very moving poem about the years the Jews wandered in exhile . Of course this is much founding myth as possible history.
"The Actor" is a chilling work about the fears of the creative. The poet sees a Shakespearan actor in a rooming house,talking on the phone ranting at his mother and begging for money. The poet retreats to his room and begins to write, hoping his words will protect him from such a fate. This poem is a memory of maybe twenty years ago in the life of the poet.
"Night Watch", proceeded by a very poignant poems about recollections of old relationships, focuses on a man who stood in his back yard staring at the night sky for thirty years. He was looking for "unfixed stars". He in the end found more than anyone else. We are made to ponder what drove him to this, what was he seeking? Did he long for a ride on a unfixed star? I was brought to mind Rembrandt's most regarded painting by this poem.
""Culture" well might be my favorite poem in the collection. There are deep veins in On Carbon and Light about how knowledge is built, how communities arise, how mysteries impact. We see these beautifully in "Culture"
The Insturment of Speech
"The Insturment of Speech" exemplifies the compressing power of the best poetry. It for sure challenged my ability to understand the references. I will go through it a stanza at a time.
"The cave of meanings, its weathered horde, its haunted echoes and brimming core. The soil, the clay, the basin, the ground of being, the foundation-works and river of need."
My first guess is this is drawn from the Viking roots of Irish mythology. For me from my own culture it echoes the cave of Plato. It echoes pre-Christians metaphysics. The ancient meanings echo in our collective unconsciousness. Jung was not fully correct but he was far from fully wrong.
"The serpent’s kiss, the coupling chromosomes, the foetal appetites and clinging forms. Land hunger, mound, earth-dwelling, home, the blood in the veins and first sound."
The open words echo back to the garden of eve and in the collection to the poems about the carbon atom. Life comes from the bonding of the carbon atom. We then go back to the impact of the first invasion of the Vikings. From this we return to the origin of sounds.
"the body of the world and all we’ve known. The dust of longing and force of change, the hands, the skin, the heart and brain. The Presence, the prayer, the pit of desire; heart’s return and unquenchable fires. Yggdrasil, well-spring, starlight and stones. The long journey out and our stolen songs."
In the last two stanzas we have lines of great beauty. If asked to say what is the message here. My first response is I do not know. Then I begin to see a view of the world and the human connected. Yggdrasil is from Norse creation stories. Whose songs were stolen? Is it the pre- Norse Irish? The people who first saw the Travellers? There is great depth here.
"Seeing" is about the poet's visit to the observatory of the great Irish scientist,astronomer, versifier in his on right and friend of Wordsworth. I sort of see this as about the last days science and poetry could be held in one voice. We also see the poet once again remembering the past while he increase his own depth of culture
My maternal grandmother made her living with a sewing needle. She did embroidery work that could be in the Victoris and Albert Museum. I grew up with dress patterns a common place in the household. As this poem opens the poet remembers his mother and a neighbor finishing up a dress, made with patterns. As he works on another kind of machine he hopes somehow the patterns in words he makes will bond him with his mother. A very moving poem.
"Fish Ascending" is the coda of On Carbon and Light. In the final lines may be the message in the bottle from our poet.
Long ago the poet was given a fossilized fish, much like the secret symbol Christians once used as a secret symbol of their faith. I saw it long ago in the Catacombs. In the very last lines we can see much of the poems. Two worlds, science and art, Trinity and the world of his upbringing, Ancient history and modern life. Love and the moenory of love.
"it had risen again in light instead of water, an icon of two world systems reconciled and comprehended in a time when both are at odds, each biting and tearing at the other."
I have read all the poems five times, some ten. I know some poems were not probably originally written with the thought of being unified with others. To me I found these poems together. These are my poems now.
I give my highest endorsement to On Carbon and Light. These are works that can stand up to many readings.