Wednesday, 7 May 2014

53° 09'33.17" N, 0° 25'33.18" W — Rory Waterman

A lodge-house to an estate, once: the front wall
still ends with one redundant brick gatepost,
its rustic latch clicking only to wind,
and the clean bulk of its limestone cap
shorn of clogs of English ivy, carious and precarious.

There used to be a long metal water-butt
out of bounds, snug to a wall, pungent
with moss and webs, its content a black
lilting mirror when I'd raise the lid
that was wooden and rotten and gave slightly.

And there was a low-slung roof on a breezeblock annexe
with a fat windowsill and convenient external piping
that occasionally broke and had to be mended;
and a cigar-box of old green pennies and shards of pot
from the garden, out of sight in a cracked soffit.

But the side gate remains, a wrought iron cross-hatch
mass-produced in a distant foundry, showing
bends for the feet that are no longer mine,
that kicked off and made it a shrill, dull swing;
and the fence is the matt-green my grandmother painted,
though tarnished now, and in places peeling.


When I first came across ‘53°’ as the Guardian's Saturday Poem, I was ready to dismiss it. I thought my initial half-hearted scan told me all I needed to know about it, i.e. that it’s built up out of three solid-looking five-liners (if you know the technical term, please let me know) and one equally cairn-stone-like final six-liner. The second, slightly less lazy sweep, picked up compounds like ‘breezeblock,’ ‘water-butt,’ and ‘wrought iron.’ “Great,” I thought, “another Heaney knock-off. Another old fashioned poet getting a hard-on over the concrete.” I was ready, in other words, to dismiss it as a dull old dad poem. 

So I give it to my dull old dad to read (don’t worry, he openly admits/aspires to being the most boring person in the world) and he likes it. Quelle surprise! But I listen as he gives me specifics: “I like ‘English ivy,’” he says, “like ‘carious and precarious.’ Didn’t know, ‘carious’”and he shuffles his eyes over at me, cautious, as always, of being caught out“was a word? I like ‘convenient external piping’ too,” he muses, "‘and mass-produced.’ But they’re not coordinates. They’re longitude and latitude.” I watch him carefully articulate each part of the title over the rim of the Tetley’s he likes to provide me with. “Fifty-three degrees, nine minutes and thirty-three seconds …” 

Seconds?” I interrupt, incredulous, because he must have got his wires crossed. Regardless of whether, technically speaking, they are ‘coordinates’ or not, we’re talking about place, about distance and location, and not time, right? So dad launches into a lengthy explanation of how the globe is divided up, some of which I know, some of which (even though it's KS2 stuff) is utterly mysterious to me. And mysterious in that brain-blocking utterly quotidian way, like flying from Keflavik, Iceland, at seven and arriving, 3600 miles away in Seattle a mere 45 minutes later at a quarter to eight. 

My interest is piqued and, thinking I might have been too hasty to judge, I go back to the poem. 

What the little orange man sees.

I think a good way to start appreciating it is to—in true internet style—skip to the money-shot and look closely at the last two lines. So what do they tell us? Well, there’s no couplet, for one thing, and even though the ‘showing,’ ‘swing,’ and ‘peeling,’ of l.17, 19, and 21 do set up an audible echo, I think it’s fair to say, in terms of an ending, it’s a bit of a non-event. But this, I would argue, is what makes the poem and is the only way it could go out.

In one of the later letters collected in One Art, Elizabeth Bishop complains about her students’ tendency to “try to tie everything up neatly in 2 or 3 beautiful lines” (One Art, 1995, 596). It’s to this poem’s credit then that the last 2 or 3 lines are nothing if not understated; closure, in a formal sense, is only provided by—what I figure—is the pararhyme of ‘painted’ and ‘peeling.’ 

Because, as far as tempo is concerned, this is a remarkably even poem all the way through. From the quietly assonantal first few lines of ‘lodge-house,’ ‘once,’ ‘one,’ and ‘gatepost,’ onto the ‘rustic latch’ onomatopoeically, but quietly ‘clicking’ in the wind. 

Further evidence of an even tempo is the tiny modulation of excess detectable in l.9-10; ‘I’d raise the lid / that was wooden and rotten and gave slightly.’ ‘And’ has to be the most powerful word know to man. And what if that line was, ‘was wooden, rotten, and gave slightly’? Would that make much of a difference? Yes. The series of ands in place of a series of commas, act like bumps in the road, allowing the reader to register an emotional resonance that, were the language more strident, would be lost. 

And I believe this emotional resonance is the main achievement of the language in the poem. The lyrical ‘I’ is almost totally absent (occurring once in ‘I’d,’ in the unreal past, occupying only 3 out of the poem's 1,000 odd chars); instead we get a subject subsumed by the object of mutual attention. Take l.18, for example, where ‘the feet that are no longer mine,’ kick off against a gate. The feet that are no longer mine? What a weird thought. They were my feet so, what? Do I have a new pair of feet? Attempting to think about that induces the same over-clocking I get when I think about flying into the future/past and calls up a remark of Peter Porter's on George Herbert's 'Virtue,' that "the daring of ... great poets is largely in their sudden blows of ordinariness" ('Poetry and Materialism,' 2001, 198).

Little orange man stands at

Similarly, in l.19 there’s a blow of the ordinary I was misreading for ages. The line, ‘kicked off and made it a shrill, dull swing,’ I was reading as, ‘kicked off and made a shrill dull swing.’ Again, it’s a small difference, 4 chars out of a 1,000 (it’s consoling that 0.04% of anything’s pretty easy to miss). Kicking off against it doesn’t just make a noise, it imaginatively transforms the object into something else; it turns the ‘gate’ into a ‘swing.’ So Porter again, in the same essay, says "[language] has to be made materialist by the alchemy of the poet" (2001, 190), which seems to chime well with the ample reverence for ordinary mystery this poem demonstrates.

Maybe it’s because I returned to the poem sufficiently confused to not not understand it, or maybe, now that I’ve put roughly 6,000 miles between the place and the people I’d known as home, the poem seems much more ego-apt. Whatever the reason, I’ve found it increasingly arresting. 

This poem is a remarkable act of linguistic monument-making, the load-bearing past simple and its solid syntax support the weight of a series of descriptions compacted so densely that tracing its lines reminds me more of tracing relief work in stone than something made mostly on the breath and the brain.

And that’s why I’ll be returning to ‘53°’ and the rest of Rory's poems in Tonight the Summer's Over, be keeping an eye on developments on his blog, and next time won't be so eager to dismiss dull old dad poems. 

Anyone interested in reading more should check out the write up on Rory's poetry on 'Between Sound and Sense,' and the grand little magazine 'New Walk,' on which Rory works as an editor. 


Would like to hear what other people thought about ‘53°,’ did you like it from the get-go, or did it grow on you? Feel free to comment or social-mediarize me. 

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