More elegies landed on our desk this September than in February. Even
dialect poems seemed both to celebrate language and to lament its
loss. Here in the northern hemisphere it is autumn, so the mood is partly
seasonal: leaves fall, light fades and the environment of recent months
inters itself before our eyes. Recognition of this pattern is both comforting
and depressing. The more seasons we savour, the fewer we have left. By
November, mourning becomes specific: Armistice Day has, in a century,
become the day to mourn all war dead. Likewise poets trying to elegize
one individual can find themselves re-membering every person and every
thing they have lost.
Elegies look back, but as their consolations, spelled out or implicit, are
proleptic, might the urge to elegize itself spring from apprehended future
loss? The Victorians – clutterers of every horizon and corner, and wallowers
in loss – perhaps anticipated like the Romans that the cost of their imperial
zeal would be more than monetary. How can we now look at the seasonal
pattern without noticing its distortion, without considering the political
crud with which it is entangled, and our part in both?
Midway through one of the starkest elegies of the 20th century, for a ten
year-old holocaust victim one day his junior, Geoffrey Hill breaks off: ‘(I
have made / an elegy for myself it / is true)’. The lineation and brackets
make this a gulping admission. Yes, in writing poems we are elegizing
ourselves. To speak memorably from the grave – or anywhere – requires
strong visual images: ‘September Song’ invokes marching, Zyklon, leather,
vines, roses, flakes, a wall, smoke, fires and eyes. Some of these are also
audible, some olfactory and one of the senses, touch, is named. Emotion
is tacit: it is enough to sting our eyes and nostrils with crematory smoke.
Stevie Smith’s ‘Not waving but drowning’ is equally stark. Again the image
is filmic: a drowned man on the beach; waving arms, deadly cold water. Yet
this man either speaks from the dead, or we collude in writing him off as
such. He is dead, says line one. And yet he moans, intelligibly, articulating
what everyone knows but no one apparently hears until too late.
The work that follows was completed before autumn 2019. Not all is
sombre; much is joyous, some bittersweet. Let us read, into and between
the lines, while we may.