The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss
I’m reading Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. It’s funny how dense a poem is. I can only read about five poems at a time before I need to have a break. I think it’s all the words that get taken out; they free the words that are left from all the nails and frameworks of grammar and let them sit like stars in a night sky: connected by invisible personal connotations, making invisible lines; constellations.
Like most people who have done an English Literature degree I have read Plath (mostly) and Hughes (a little), and (a bit) about both of them. I have read The Silent Woman which is a wonderful book about the unwonderful Hughes-Plath relationship’s afterlife. The Bell Jar is a book I have read three times with the exact same feeling of fascination and unease. Which is often how I feel when I read her poems. This is the first time I’ve read more than a little bit of Hughes. He doesn’t have that unusual, frightening intensity of Plath, but he has his own power.
Describing the moment when thousands of bats leave their cave at dusk:
The bats were part of the sun’s machinery,
Connected to the machinery of the flowers
By the machinery of the insects. The bats’ meaning
Oiled the unfailing logic of the earth.
Much of the interest in Birthday Letters lies in all the things it has to say about the star-crossed lovers at its centre, but Hughes has such a gift for writing about nature that even in this collection, which is so much about a relationship, nature comes poking through. Often those moments are not comforting. Hughes’ nature seems both profound and savage.
I read The Sixth Extinction last year. It has stayed with me, and I will reread it soon. Sadly, and I am sure this was not the author’s intent, it is the book that has made me give up. Like a cult member in a strange sect that has moved into its bunker and sealed himself in, I have become convinced we are in the last days. There is nothing we can do now but watch the environment we live in apply the unfailing logic of a poisoned earth to itself. Capitalism’s ills have been known for as long as it has been known, but the benefits have always outweighed them for those on the “right side of history”. Capitalism protects the wealthiest in any equation and so, the wealthiest countries, the ones who have created all the harm, will be the last to be truly impacted. It’s a perfect death lock.
Little things can compound my feeling on the matter of the earth. Listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer, for example, talk about the word sustainability. That word is a sacred word in the language of the environmentally focused left but, she points out, it is not a good word if you are the environment. If you are the environment that word means the right of humans to use you to the point where you are not killed off. It’s not really about respect at all. More about not killing the chicken that lays the egg for the sake of the eggs we steal than caring for the chicken. It was not a happy moment when I heard her say these things because I have always thought of that word as a possible life line for us, but framed in that way it looks more like trying to draw a distinction between a slave and a serf.
I had the first major crisis of my life in 2003. It came when Cathy and I left Japan. We went on holiday to Europe and then came back to New Zealand. It was while I was in Japan that I first understood why the world would be destroyed. Of course we can blame the giant corporations that exist in the biosphere of capitalism, but actually the world will be destroyed because people are lazy. Once you understand that when all of Japan dines out it does so with disposable chopsticks made of wood, then you understand why we are in the last days. A law could ban this practice overnight, but no law is written. Forests fall, and chopsticks are made, one-use chopsticks, and who knows how many million are used and thrown away every single night in Japan. They’re as convenient to the consumer as having all their food sealed in plastic on the supermarket shelves. As convenient as international air travel. To climate change conferences. Juvenal would have had a field day.
My crisis began to build a head of steam in me on, dramatically enough, the roof of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It is a truly strange building. Of course magnificent in scale, but I found it more disturbing than moving. Watching the people teeming about the relics of popes in gilded vessels it seemed a place with more akin to voodoo than Christ, and on top of the Basilica there is a shop, staffed by nuns, selling trinkets, and rosaries, and offering the opportunity to post a letter that will bear the unique post stamp: Vatican City. We sent postcards from there. I can’t remember who to. I wonder where they are now; those cards posted from the beginnings of my still unfolding crisis. They probably said something glib, something witty and cynical about the Catholic church.
History itself plays its part in all of this. I mean History with the capital H; the human act of story-telling about itself.
And around us
This gloomy memorial of a valley,
The fallen-in grave of its history,
A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels,
The fouled nest of the Industrial Revolution
That had flown.
In the History of the west small, deserted, post-industry towns are part of a narrative that runs from steam engines, to imperialism, to post-colonialism, to globalisation. A grand narrative like that disguises a human life and its duration. A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels is one thing in a grand narrative about economics, but it is another more emotionally rich, complex, and well-worn thing in the hands of those who lived there. The grand narratives of our own time disguise the tens of millions of lives reaching for the chopsticks, and saying yes to the plastic shopping bag. Perhaps I will be able to say something that my grandchildren will accept about the sickened environment and conflict-ridden world. Something better than; it was just so easy to jump in the car and go to the shop for groceries. So easy to admire the breathtaking complexity of all the hidden moving parts that went into making a supermarket continually fully stocked. Each time I reach for the product on the shelf it connected me invisibly to the container ships in the ports of China, the silos of grain, the hand picking the peach, the plastics factory, the oil wells in the Middle East, the worker asleep on the factory floor in Bangladesh, the stockbroker off the clock in a bar in Manhattan. What an exhilarating narrative that is. How sweeping, and miraculous. And yet, it is also a narrative that forgets something. Us. Each life, each span of time for each person from womb to earth, our part in the sun’s machinery.
A third major character in Birthday Letters is Plath’s father. Hughes often senses Plath seeing her father in him, and him in her father, and anyone who has read Plath knows that poem she wrote about her Daddy. Black Coat is a Hughes’ poem about that. At first it seems to be a poen about him walking, alone, out near the sea, until we know that he is being watched, from half a mile off, by Plath, and how he had
How that double image,
Your eye’s inbuilt double exposure
Which was the projection
Of your two-way heart’s diplopic error,
The body of the ghost and me the blurred see-through
Came into single focus,
Sharp-edged, stark as a target,
Set up like a decoy
Against that freezing sea
From which your dead father had just crawled.
I did not feel
How, as your lenses tightened,
He slid into me.
Diplopia is double vision. I have it quite badly. Not actual diplopia, but the habit of seeing another image ghosting alongside the actual image in front of me. This whole piece of writing, and many of my others, are double-visions. It’s a common condition. In the Plath-Hughes relationship people have seen many things. They have seen themselves, their parents, archetypes of man and woman, the oppression of patriarchy, a murderer. In the newspaper headlines it is possible to see the end times. In moss, poetry.
Hughes remembers Plath’s last April when they harvested the daffodils that grew around their house and sold them. How they lost their wedding-present scissors in the process. Plath is gone but the daffodils return, part of the sun’s machinery, each March.
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the dark curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.
But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April,
Through the sod – an anchor, a cross of rust.
I feel that we forget both our particularity, and our humble place. All of the noise of our age makes us feel and become disembodied; makes us feel present in grand stories in which we are not truly present, and potentially separated from those we can reach out and touch, and the actual world of seasons and time that touches us.
Throw down your anchors.