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Earth’s Old Bones

Brendan Lowe

Keats Lives, by Moya Cannon, Carcanet Press, 61pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1784100605

In Moya Cannon’s new collection the human world and the natural world – the inanimate included – exist in a continuum. Throughout her poems the interwoven web of life is laid out for our inspection and acknowledgement. One result is that the “lives of humans and of trout” can appear to be of equal value, especially when considered against the overarching interconnectedness of things. But her aesthetic is also concerned with pulling back from such truths even while endorsing them; with asserting a parallel human response in such a world.

Cannon is consistently interested in pattern and the “harmonic[s]” of congruence between man-made patterns and those of nature’s makers, vegetable and mineral as well as animal. In “Two ivory swans”, we’re told the real birds’

whooping set off a harmonic
in someone who looked up […]
and, with a hunter-gatherer’s hand,
carved tiny white likenesses
from the tip of the tusk
of the great land-mammal […]

In other poems, gentians “have turned thunder / into blue velvet,” and a panoramic landscape is “a palette of hammered silver”; conversely human hair is “this / almost last vestige / of our animal pelt,” and shrines at the sites of road deaths are “like something a bird might build”. In “November Snow” Cannon responds to the traces of a small animal in the snow. For her the small animal is “someone” and the scene is understood in human terms:

oval prints on both sides of a broken line –
someone’s frozen tail.

And the young oak scatters
wide its bounty –
gold bullion on white linen

The poems return again and again to survival in the natural world, with human struggle always present in the background. The water-hen in a city canal “who steered six fistfuls / of black down through a motley of shadows” (“Only one was lost in the night”) is a figure to be admired, even held up to us as an example. In “Fly-Catcher” Cannon identifies with the bravery of an injured bird who persisted in her migratory pattern,

who traced the spine of the Appalachians
year after year […]

An undisguised human conclusion follows:

Life can be so rough,
yet we can’t get enough of it.

The book’s cover shows a wooden ruler set in arcane combination with other objects to form “The Rule of Rilke”, a piece by Marie Foley. Like Rilke, Cannon is a poet of positivity even as she recognises hardship: one who seeks out continuities. An almost blind ninety-two-year-old neighbour described in another poem is like the one-legged bird. With admirable tenacity she persists in her weekly visit to the hairdresser to have her hair

permed and set
in the style
in which she stepped out
with her young man
after the last World War.

Sometimes it is as if there is a search for redemption in the natural world, and birds, recurring as images of affirmation and survival, are perhaps the dominant motif of Keats Lives. Over a mountain gap we read towards the collection’s close that

a heron, soft-winged pterodactyl-shadow,
passed over our heads,
through its upside-down,
triumphal arch.

Readers may be struck too by how many poems feature snow. Cannon comes back to it again and again, and in “Snow Day” an indirect explanation is offered:

Snow fell and fell
through the night,
feeding our need
for silence,
for mid-winter light,
for believing that all can be
made right.

But even as this imaginative appropriation of nature to explore human emotion is under way, a background question takes shape. Ours is not the era of high Romanticism. Today we know the science of nature thoroughly and it is a knowledge that pushes against its metaphorical use. How is the individual to respond and feel in a world where so much is connected across the surface of the planet and over aeons of time? Does the broad perspective of endless links and dependencies yield anything that can move us? Does the radical connectedness of everything not reduce us to the status of minute cogs in Gaia? The death of God was bad enough but is the arrival of Gaia to drain us of all remaining significance? Alongside Keatsian affirmation there is a seam of doubt in Cannon’s sparse and penetrating verse, reminiscent of the religious doubt that tortured Tennyson and other Victorians. Hers is a poetry of our time.

Of Keats she writes:

Keats claimed his only certainties were
the holiness of the heart’s affections
and the truth of imagination.

In his famous letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats didn’t mince his words:

I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth […] I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. […] However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! […] we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth.

John Keats walked away from the world of science, from the apothecary’s laboratory, to devote himself to the world of the imagination. In the heady days of high Romanticism such things were just about possible. But today, after two centuries of transformative invention and intervention, we cannot ignore science. Today is different, not least because science tells us that science is destroying nature.

Our fears are different now,
of floods and fast-calving glaciers,
of birds and beasts and fish and flowers forever lost
and the earth’s old bones pressed for oil.

Today we know the Aristotelian tradition of human domination over nature has brought us to the edge of annihilation. Ironically it is the science of ecology which allows us to answer back. And those who answer back live in the wake of Keats’s contemporary the great Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, born in 1767, who was the first scientist to see nature as a single organism, as an interlaced Gaia, though he didn’t use the term.

Cannon’s answer is to have both Von Humboldt and Keats to tea. It’s an edgy business. She serves them in separate rooms and spends more time with Keats.

In the crisp opening lines of the collection’s first poem, “Winter View from Binn Bhriocáin”, there is immediate personal experience of the bleak winter landscape:

In the mountain-top stillness
the bog is heather-crusted iron.
A high, hidden mountain pond
is frozen into zinc riffles.

We have tramped across a plateau
of frost-smashed quartzite
to the summit cairn.

But when the poet’s gaze takes in the far below, everything merges into an integrated panorama with no privileging of the human:

lakes, bogs, sea-inlets,
the myriad lives being lived in them,
lives of humans and of trout,
of stonechats and sea-sedges

In many poems “useful knowledge” takes a back seat. “Two ivory swans”, mentioned earlier, reflects on the discovery of a pair of ancient carved swans that were

down time’s echoing chute,
to emerge, strong-winged,
to fly across our time.

Cannon does not pause for the science. She is confident of the meaning and beauty for us in the event of twenty thousand years ago and of the swans which inspired it

as they flew across Siberian tundra
twenty thousand years ago,
heralding thaw on an inland sea –
their wings, their necks, stretched,
vulnerable, magnificent.

Of course we can believe this powerful vision moved a hunter-gatherer to carve the images.  The truth of the imagination tells us so. Cannon always finds the noble in birds and is always moved:

Let me learn from the Brent geese
their grey grammar of grief
as they wheel in a bow-backed flock
onto a February tide.

But it is not always so simple. Her mood can become forensic. Once the empirical tone is established, it seems it is hard to shake it off, no matter how powerful the subject matter.

“Finger-Fluting in Moon-Milk” takes us to “the Old Stone Age” and a cave in southern France. Here, among cave walls painted

with long files of mammoths
and gentle-faced horses,
a woman, it seems, with a baby on her hip
trailed her fingers down through
the soft, white substance
extruded by limestone cave-walls
and the child copied her.

It is a powerful sensual image with considerable imaginative possibilities. However, they will not be fully pursued. Von Humboldt has entered the cave and indeed is driving the “toy train” from which the visitors observe the cave. We can say it was a woman because

We are told that usually, not always,
a woman’s index-finger
is longer than her ring-finger

The stone is “limestone” and the white substance is “extruded” and “it seems” to have been a woman and child who finger fluted in moon milk. The imagination offers a flurry with the mention of a “ring-finger”, with all the possibilities of love and commitment, but there will be no imaginative entering-into the world of this Stone Age woman. The situation is quite clear-cut:

With no gauge to measure sensibility
we cannot know what portion
of our humanity we share
with someone who showed a child
how to sign itself in moon-milk
one day, late in the Old Stone Age.

The Romantic hunger is there but what can you do without a gauge?

Sometimes the empirical is ignored and the poet can let rip. The convent thimbles of “Four thimbles” “were sieved out of the mud of the riverbank”. Most of the poem is given over to elegant lines describing the convent’s slow inundation as it sank into the river:

For seven hundred years the waters rose,
drowning the blue-tiled fountain and the cloister gardens.
The nuns raised and raised the church floor
until psalms were sung high among the vaults.

The convent is seven hundred years old and within the historical period but Cannon has no interest in the dusty archives. It is the nuns and what sort they might have been that fires her imagination:

Crossed lovers,
widowed noblewomen
or peasant girls who placed [the thimbles]
on middle or ring fingers […]
Their stitching talk was
of treachery and love betrayed,
clanking crusades, inquisitions, dynasties
on the rise or on the wane

On rare occasions the archaeological record gives the detail which eliminates the need for imaginative speculation. “‘Beware of the Dog’” is set in Pompeii:

Celer, the baker, the slave […]
slid this round wholemeal loaf […]
from the brick oven
hours or minutes before
ash fell like hot snow
and hid their city.

Perhaps the human connection was always there in the remote past but it’s just that, unlike in Pompeii, no decisive evidence remained. In this poem there is no tension between empirical and emotional perspectives:

No one suspected the mountain,
or understood the shunt and dive
of the earth’s plates
or the burning tides that drive them.

In the absence of evidence, Cannon can hold back on imaginative urges when considering ancient human sites no matter how suggestive, as in “Finger-Fluting in Moon-Milk”. “Burial, Ardèche 20,000 BC”, which considers a child’s ancient grave, is similar but in the end the language and feeling can’t sustain the initial holding back.

No bear or lion ever raked him up,
the five-year-old child,
victim of illness, accident or sacrifice,
buried in a cave floor
high above a white-walled, roaring gorge
shortly after the ice-sheets had retreated.

Someone sprinkled his grave with red ochre,
someone tied a seashell around his neck,
someone placed a few flint blades by his side,
and under his head someone laid
the dried tail of a fox, perhaps
a white fox.

It is as if these ancient people outside the historical record are superior to us, innately noble pre-science demigods high above the roaring gorge. These unknowable people take on some of the magnificence of Cannon’s flying swans and wheeling geese. Do they suggest human possibilities or perhaps lost possibilities?

The grave was never threatened by lowly dogs or rats but by great bears and noble lions. It lies “high above a white-walled, roaring gorge” and in a time outside history “shortly after the ice-sheets had retreated”. The strangeness is everywhere mixed with empathic desire. The “victim of illness, accident or sacrifice” was tended by someone. “Someone”, repeated four times, cared for and arranged the grave in a beautiful statement we cannot unravel or explain but which intrigues and moves us.

In Cannon’s verse there are two pasts: the millennia of the human past shading off into geological time, and the more immediate past of the poet’s own life, family and experiences. If there can be doubts about the meaning for us of the remote past, there is emotional certainty around her own.

I will never meet the weavers
of Antinöe on the Nile
but I remember the swish and click-click-click
of my mother’s treadle sewing machine
as she bent to it, intent

It is as if Cannon is trying to fix in meaning the undoubted emotional impact of her own experiences through a process of moving far away from them in time. In “Primavera” the ancient past and her family’s past are brought into imaginative juxtaposition. Out under the Italian Alps on St Bridget’s Eve the signs of nature’s renewal are electrifying:

a sliver of white among clumped shoots –
a snowdrop splits its green sheath,

Notwithstanding the “ski-stations” and “tunnels”

this is St Bridget’s Eve. This is the evening when my father
used to knock three times on the scullery door
and wait for the invitation to enter
with a bundle of cut rushes, saying

Téigi ar bhur nglúine,
fosclaigí bhur súile
agus ligigí isteach Bríd.

This is a felt ritual, practised in the poet’s childhood home and before that in her father’s childhood home. Cannon can link the practice to more elaborate rituals:

or what do those little island girls celebrate
who still carry the Brídeóg, the spring doll,
from house to welcoming house […]

The answer takes her back to the world of Greek mythology:

[…] if not the joyful return
of the bride from Hades after three months of deep
wintering, if not a first sighting of Persephone
among the rushes in a wet western field?

“Our fears… now”, the poem says, are not of “late frosts” or “dead lambs” but of “fast-calving glaciers” and nature’s degradation. Yet our fears cannot dislodge or lessen the joy of spring. We still welcome Bridget:

[…] our bones still bid her welcome
when she knocks three times,
when she enters, ever young,
Kneel down,
open your eyes
and allow spring to come in.

Throughout the book Cannon’s language, though uncondensed, is precise in its descriptiveness, balancing a wide-eyed wonder with keen empirical investigation. Curiosity is where the two meet.

One aspect of Cannon’s “disarmingly simple” modus operandi, as Paula Meehan describes it on the back cover –  “[t]he poems can be read by a child or a sage” – is that she often seems to let a poem present itself from the history embodied in an object, from experience, from her reading or from an anecdote. “Fly-Catcher” is introduced as something “told” to the speaker. This direct letting-in of experience, this openness, has her dedicate some poems to people who, the reader imagines, shared in the experience described. The book’s title itself seems to have been a fragment of a stranger’s conversation. That experience might be shared is part of her poetry’s – not untroubled – tendency to optimism.

Keats Lives is interspersed with museum pieces; the museum as part of curiosity’s remit. The conjectured dead populate the book more than living humans: and yet “Keats Lives on the Amtrak”, the poem that gives the collection its title, brings poetry roaring out into the train-crossed contemporary world. A train conductor, we’re told, having started a conversation about books with the passenger who speaks the poem,

leaned forward, smiled, and said,
‘I’m going to get a t-shirt with
Keats Lives on it. This time of year,’ –
he gestured towards the window,
trees were blurring into bud –
‘when everything starts coming green again,
I always think of him…
A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases, it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us…’

Cannon’s open idiom is flexible enough to accommodate “coming green” and Keats’s “bower”. There is universality of experience across time and type in the conductor’s, the poem’s and the book’s grand declaration: Keats lives, and can live anywhere and anywhen.




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