While searching through Winter Sun, The Dumfounding (Margaret Avison’s collected poems of 1940-1966), I discovered that someone had written a note in the margin of Margaret’s signed poem The Swimmer’s Moment. It read as follows:
“Talked to Margaret – [She was] swimming in the Ottawa River toward an Oak. She realized the tree was going in the wrong direction and she was being carried away by the current.”
If not for every one of us, an otherwise ordinary, though alarming, moment, yet suddenly transformed by an intuition and enduring images into a figure much greater than its individual features. That is poetry; the synergistic art of entanglement. Did Avison first see ‘pale-bland faces on the rim of suction’ or did she start with the hunch, ‘For Everyone // The swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool comes, // But many at that moment will not say, “This is the whirlpool then?” Wherever the entanglement began, I sense there is a current of hope in the The Swimmer’s Moment that may not have been entirely owing to Avison’s own imagination. An excerpt of Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel Lecture, 1987: “There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the Biblical prophets, revelation. What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them at once (gravitating primarily toward the second and the third). For all three of them are given in the language; and there are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem finds himself where no one has ever been before him, further perhaps than he himself would have wished for”. (From Noble Lectures, Literature 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frangsmyr, Singapore, 1993.)
We recognize how potent language is when a poet who is admittedly not a Christian (not referring to Avison who admittedly was) can harvest the language to great, even prophetic effect, often beyond what she may have intended.
The Swimmer’s Moment
by Margaret Avison
For every one
The swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool comes,
But many at that moment will not say
“This is the whirlpool then.”
By their refusal they are saved
From the black pit,
and also from contesting
The deadly rapids, and emerging in
The mysterious, and more ample waters.
And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim of suction
They will not recognize.
Of those who dare the knowledge
Many are whirled into the ominous centre
That, gaping vertical, seals up
For them an eternal boon of privacy,
So that we turn away from their defeat
With a despair, not from their deaths, but for Ourselves,
who cannot penetrate their secret
Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
Where one or two have won:
(The Silver reaches of the estuary).
What then of the Christian who lives in the embrace of Christ? I do not mean to trivialize, but there is magic in the recipe. It is the sort of magic illustrated by C.S. Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew. A contemptuous Uncle Andrew throws an iron tie-bar that glances off Aslan’s head (a powerful lion whose song has created the land of Narnia), sticks in the ground, and grows into a lamppost. The pugnacious piece of iron had sunk into ground so fertile, so infused with Aslan’s own lifecreating breath and song that if it had not set down roots and sprouted, it would have begun to quiver and sing. A swim in the Ottawa River, iron bars, temper tantrums and even hunches are not in themselves extraordinary, but to the attentive poet, raw materials of the art, transformed first by power inherent in the language, then by baptism into him who said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”.
Notes…“A momentary stay against the confusion of the world,” is, you may think, a rather aggrandized way of describing the making of poems, especially since it was said by a poet, albeit a very good poet. Not withstanding Robert Frost describes of what a poem is capable.
Why else does the tyrant first imprison the poet, remove a ‘stay’ in the path of the conquering machinery of despotic insanity? As possibly the first poem that I read and actually liked, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock continues to deepen its allure.I might quote examples of its hypnotic cadences, its sagacious economy in lines like ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ or its foreboding in ‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think they will sing to me.’ as features of the poem that draw me back to further readings that have instilled in me an unquenchable compulsion to both write them and to understand what I can best describe as the art of entanglement.
In Millennium Myth, N.T Wright encourages Christians confronted with ideologies and political forces that are “earthbound”, that is, bound in the ordinary, to a rediscovery “of truly apocalyptic language: language that will speak of earth and resonate with the music of heaven.” OK, sounds nice, but how?
Man In Bucket Hat
-by Paul Tucker
He wears his bucket
with the brim overshadowing his eyes
like dependable eaves
His closed left hand
is nestled in a pensile pocket
like an unweathered wing reserved
His light blue jacket looks new
or is it a telltale canvas, stretched round
a waterproof, weather-top back?
And his jeans, though thick
are a little winded
and bag out a bit at the sit and squat
But he prefers his work boots
with the tops worn through
like the pipped and windowed shell of an egg that for a moment,
let me see the confined struggle
of the incessant hatchling