In Presiding Spirits we ask a contemporary poet to write a poem which draws on writing from the past. In this issue Vicki Feaver responds to Edward Thomas’s Old Man.
Old Man, or Lads-Love, – in the name there’s nothing
To one that knows not Lads-Love, or Old Man,
The hoar green feathery herb, almost a tree,
Growing with rosemary and lavender.
Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to the names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
The herb itself I like not, but for certain
I love it, as someday the child will love it
Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush
Whenever she goes in or out of the house.
Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling
The shreds at last on to the path,
Thinking perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs
Her fingers and runs off. The bush is still
But half as tall as she, ‘though it is as old;
So well she clips it. Not a word she says;
And I ca only wonder how much hereafter
She will remember, with that bitter scent,
Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees
Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door
A low thick bush beside the door, and me
Forbidding her to pick.
As for myself,
Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end
The Smell of Rubber
Smell of babies’ teats
and the johnnies we used
in the attic of the vicarage;
and my parents’ new grey car –
a Vanguard in the round-
nosed style of the Fifties
that I called Jumbo:
none of these stirring
a memory as unreachable
as the heated rubber smell
of a hot-water bottle filled
from the freshly-boiled kettle –
the water scalding, dangerous,
as I hold open the mouth
to pour it in; loving the burp
of squeezed-out air-bubbles
and going to sleep with the smell
in my nostrils – smell I half-hate
but am irresistibly drawn to –
something about the longing to hold
and be held making me hug
the small hot pliable body
to my chest, waking with
the sadness of it cold
in my bed and stinging
burn marks on my skin
like fierce red kisses.
Vicki Feaver talks to Judy Brown
What drew you to Edward Thomas as inspiration?
In the strange serendipitous way that sometimes happens, three things came together. I had just read the biography of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis. I found some old notes for a poem about a hot water-bottle and its rubber smell. Then you asked me to write a poem for Magma inspired by another poem. Almost immediately Thomas’s Old Man came into my mind. The connection with Old Man is that I felt as mystified about why the scent of rubber should seem the key to a lost memory, as he did about the scent of the herb. I also felt equally ambivalent about the smell. It pleased me that my smell, in contrast to his scent, was industrial. I didn’t want to exactly copy his poem.
Like other Edward Thomas poems, Old Man shows the poet reaching for something – a memory, a world – he cannot reclaim – “a time / long past and irrecoverable”. Your response enacts the same process and the same inability to resolve it. You’ve written about your poem The Witches that “the hardest part was imagining what I felt as I waited in the dark”. Is the past that elusive?
The Witches describes an experience I had aged seven or eight. Sensual experiences can still seem vivid to me, even after more than fifty years. I find it much more difficult to remember thoughts and feelings. All the poems I’ve written about my childhood are constructions of memory and imagination. Memory provides the stepping stones; imagination the leaps between them.
Thomas’s Old Man and Sedge-Warblers (the poem from which your quote comes) are different. Although the subject of the poems is lost memory, much of the material comes from direct observation. In Old Man Thomas describes first seeing a child, presumably his daughter, “snipping the tips” off the bush and “shrivelling the shreds” between her fingers and then pausing before sniffing them. Then he describes how
I, to, often shrivel the grey shreds, Sniff them and think and sniff again and try Once more to think what it is I am remembering, Always in vain.
My process in The Smell of Rubber mirrors this. Much of the poem consists of a description of filling the hot-water bottle, squeezing out air bubbles and holding it against my chest. It’s easier to construct poems which describe the visible. The difficult bit is reaching into the dark to find “the key” that will unlock the invisible part. In Old Man, the memory attached to the bush’s scent remains “irrecoverable”. But in reaching for it Thomas finds an image in his unconscious mind – “an avenue, dark, nameless, without end” – more haunting and powerful than an actual memory. It is an image of “Darkness [made] Visible”. It is an image that conjures for me Thomas’s loneliness…
At the end of my poem, unable to pin down a precise memory conjured by the hot rubber smell, I reach into the bran-tub of the invisible and find, much more prosaically, something I do know, something that is visible, the red burn marks left on my skin by a hot-water bottle that has now gone cold. In my poem Judith I describe her, in her grief, “rolling in the ashes of the fire just to be touched and dirtied by something”. In The Smell of Rubber I am reaching for something similar: an image of touch that, however painful, is preferable to the loneliness of not being touched.
Your poems are more ‘peopled’ than Thomas’s though The Book of Blood is full of animals, birds and plants.
Whilst there is also a child in Old Man and your speaker seems alone, even here the hot-water bottle stands in for another being – “the small hot pliable body”. Does this reflect how you read the world?
I can think of a fair number of people in Thomas’s poems: his wife, daughter, lovers, as well as the various farm-workers and other characters who he encounters
on his travels through the countryside. It’s probably true, though, that I am more interested in human relationships. I suppose the fundamental difference is contained in the contrasting images – Thomas’s “avenue, dark, nameless, without end” and my “small hot pliable body”. Thomas’s is about being alone. Mine is about physical contact, even if it is painful.
Thomas was born in1878 and died in 1917, a casualty of war. He writes as a man living in and loving the countryside, observing the changes brought about by war, haunted by self-doubt and guilt about his unwillingness to be a devoted husband and father, who signs up for the Army partly from patriotism but probably more because it provides an escape. I was born in 1943 almost at the end of a war that I wasn’t directly involved in but that cast a shadow over my childhood, something I’ve already touched on in the poem Girl in Red and am exploring further in my new book. I write as a woman, mother of four children, also living in and loving the countryside, though with far less knowledge about it. What I share with Thomas is not just coming late to writing poetry but also (although much less so now that my children are grown) the conflict between duty to family and the need to make a living and the selfishness and aloneness necessary to be a writer.
You often evoke feelings and narratives by the way you navigate through the touchable objects in your poems. Your poems often seem to put on a burst of speed at the end, frequently with a telling image which, whether or not it picks up an earlier theme, fills the poem with energy. We’ve discussed how the ending of your poem contrasts with that of Old Man. What do you aim for in an ending?
Since Old Man is just about my favourite poem, it is possible, without knowing it previously, that I aim to end all my poems with a strong image because of how affected I was and still am by the ending of that poem. Images for
me, now I think about it, are often a way of making visible what is invisible, of saying something that I can’t say in any other way. The end of my poem The Gun is a good example, with the image of the King of Death arriving “to feast”, “his black mouth / sprouting golden crocuses”. I was fumbling for an ending to the poem and the image came to me. I don’t know exactly what it means. Literally the crocuses are an image of fire coming out of the mouth of a gun. But I think what I was trying to say was something about spring following winter, of life coming out of death, making a link with the story of Persephone.
Edward Thomas is a very musing poet, so that the process of thinking seems to infuse the poems. Does this inspire you given that you’ve described writing as a very slow and difficult process?
I was drawn to Thomas’s poetry long before I knew anything about him as a man. I loved the way his poems slowly unravelled as if following the twists and turns of his thoughts. I also loved the way he could connect landscape and feeling, as in his poem Rain: “Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain / On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me / Remembering again that I shall die..”, another of my favourite poems. I love his images: for example, from the same poem: “a cold water among broken reeds, /Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff”. When I first started to write poetry I tried to write like Thomas and utterly failed.
As I’ve said, I share with him the long period of wanting to be a poet but not daring to write. Robert Frost gave him the encouragement to begin. I got it by going to a poetry workshop. Once Thomas had begun he wrote an amazing number of great poems in a relatively short period. I’ve seen his manuscripts. He made revisions to poems; but he didn’t go through hundreds of drafts, as I often do. Most of what I write goes into the bin, or ‘trash’ now I’ve got a computer.
Thomas has focused in this, and other poems, on names and the meaning they carry. You pick this up with the car’s trade name and the speaker’s nickname for it. A number of your poems highlight the use of names, particularly of plants and animals (Dawlish 1947, Parable of the Lettuce). What resonance do names in poems have for you?
The question makes me think: why don’t I use more names? I love poems with names in them – so many of Edward Thomas’s, including the famous Adlestrop, and of another poet I admire very much, Michael Longley. His moving poem about the Troubles in Ireland, The Ice-cream Man, is constructed almost entirely from lists of the flavours of ice-cream and the names of wild flowers. I don’t think I would have written my poem about a toad if I hadn’t discovered that its Latin name is Bufo bufo: sounding to me like a ‘clown’s name’ and giving me the poem’s title. It was partly the name of the flower, Horned Poppy, that made me want to write a poem about it. In my head now are two names of flowers I have found recently – Jacob’s Ladder and Melancholy Thistle – both of which incite that itch to try and get them into a poem.
Edward Thomas is very exact in his observations, like a person sketching. Your poems too are strikingly visual in their frequent use of bold colour. Does the visual art you do have an effect on your poems?
All my senses are precious to me — taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. But if I had to lose a sense, the one I would most want to hang on to would be seeing. It is a continuous source of pleasure. Just now looking out of my window at the shapes and colours of the clouds in the sky — so many subtle shades of grey and tiny streaks of pale blue between them; and the spikiness of a fir plantation breaking up the smooth outline of the hills, and the contrast between the black of burnt heather and purple new heather. Often I’m torn between wanting to paint what I see and write about it. My poem Marigolds was written because I wanted to paint the flowers but couldn’t find any paints. At the moment because I want to finish a book I’ve had to stop painting.