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Questions of Balance

Peter Robinson

The Painter on his Bike, by Enda Wyley, Dedalus Press, 64 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251621

The cover of Enda Wyley’s new collection reproduces “Grafton Street Cloud”, a colour photograph by Mark Granier, in which the precipitously sloping brownish rooflines of both sides of the street form a frame for the deepening blue of the sky. Across it a single white cloud is caught, mid-way, on its travel probably from left to right. Above the cloud, printed in white, is the collection’s title, underlined in a more turquoise blue, with the author’s name immediately beneath it – associating, thus, the cycling painter and composing poet with the cloud in transit. This presentation of Enda Wyley’s latest collection couldn’t but remind me of works by two Trieste-based writers, both relevant, but one more happily suggestive than the other: James Joyce’s story “A Little Cloud” of 1906 from Dubliners, and Umberto Saba’s 1920 collection Cose leggere e vaganti (Light and Roaming Things).

Little Chandler’s dream of literary fame, doubtless mocking Joyce’s own aspirations to recognition, indicated, for instance, by its author’s printing up sheaves of review snippets for Chamber Music, has been a haunting caution: “The English critics, perhaps, would recognize him as one of the Celtic school by reason of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions” – as, indeed, would T Malone Chandler’s creator. What Joyce and Saba had in common, aside from taking inspiration from the scenery and setting of Trieste, is that they both drew overwhelmingly upon their own family and city for materials. I’ve often wondered if either knew of the other, but haven’t yet found any evidence to suggest that Joyce ever read Trieste e una donna (1910-12) or that, at that time, the Italian poet knew of his Irish fellow citizen.

Yet Joyce would write the fragile lyric “A Flower Given to my Daughter”, dated Trieste 1913, only a few years before Saba published “Ritratto della mia bambina” (Portrait of my Little Girl), in which he thinks (in my translation here) of things with which to compare his own daughter:

Certainly to foam, to the seaside foam
whitening waves, to that blue wake
which emerges from roofs and the wind disperses;
likewise to the clouds, the indifferent clouds
being made and unmade in clear sky
and to other light and roaming things.

The Painter on his Bike is dedicated to Enda Wyley’s daughter, Freya, and her husband, the poet Peter Sirr. The collection contains poems for both family members, and, sociably, for many other people, including the beautifully crafted “Home” for her parents, and others for friends. “Tree House”, dedicated to their daughter on her birthday, is one of a number written in paired lines – among the most casual of poetry’s formal structures – which allows for the collaging of such light and roaming things as a “Day of bluebells and wild garlic, / of the willow heart nailed to the red door.”

Catching at such fleeting materials in a moment of poise between dispersals requires an intuitive sense of rhythmic poise, as dramatised here in the distichs of Wyley’s title poem:

He stops at the kerb,
tugs at the twine, frees it

from the spokes, sets off
again, the bike wobbling,

bumping over
potholes and tramlines,

the picture beating
against his knee.

Taking a portrait home, the painter is “balancing his father – / sketched in pencil –“. It’s wrapped in paper, but the twine securing the image catches in the spokes, accidentally unwrapping it, and “the painter’s breath” is “caught too” by “the sudden sight / of his dead father’s eyes”. The lines displayed above give an account of what the painter does to rescue the situation; but they also aptly illustrate how the poet finds a responsive form in acknowledging irregularities and instabilities. It is done by alternating lines with a fairly secure metrical shape (the iamb and anapaest of “He stops at the kerb”, for instance) with more rhythmically disjunctive lines that have stressed syllables butted against each other, (such as “the twine, frees it” and “the bike wobbling”), so that the poem’s movement through the central sentence above takes account both of what Hopkins might have called “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing”, while also noting the “potholes and tramlines” and other inconveniences with which the painter on his bike must struggle to be “cycling / the portrait home.”

Elsewhere, the questions of balance can be addressed through a revealed semantic ambiguity, as in “Safe”, for the artist Jenny Murphy, where the poem first reinforces an assumption that the title is to be construed an adjective (“That you be safe”), only to reveal it as a noun in the poem’s quietly bravura close:

and that we remain
secure

as the post office safe
robbed years ago

ransacked and dumped
beyond in the ditch

far away from that chase
still enduring there.

The safe may have been stolen and emptied, but it too remains safe, a symbol perhaps of survival from and resistance to the sorts of human experiences that might turn you into a “summer ghost”, as the poet describes “Hannah”, who they should see “ramble down / from her cottage again”. Notice too how this turn towards the poem’s climax is itself made secure by a run of casually interwoven rhymes: “lane … again … remain”. Once more, the poet is deploying the lightest of technical devices to apply pressure of an almost prayer-like weightlessness to the unstated threat symbolised by that ransacked post office safe.

In “Eurydice Speaks” though, the story to be retold is of an emotional disaster caused by the impatience of the poet Orpheus, and that her rebalancing point of view is given shape by a woman further multiplies the allusively implied conflicts that her forms must go back and resolve:

The light ahead will make me woman again.
But you haven’t changed. The warning’s ignored;
your impatience takes over. You turn around your face

and I can’t help it, cry out, immediately become shadow,
a ghost of a song you’ll sing forever. You can’t return twice
to where you found me. One look from you and I know this.

Again, there is a precariously balancing poise in the way that the final tercet is both closed and left slightly ajar by the glancing rhymes of a stressed “know” with the unstressed second syllable of “shadow”, while immediately half-rhyming the final “this” with “twice”. Given that Wyley’s poem is in the “speaking back” genre, and that the poet is herself singing the “ghost of a song”, the possible ironies in poetry’s thwarting of the original rescue mission through impatient love, and that itself being recognised and responded to in poetry are what ruffle and engage this resonant change of perspective on the story. Eurydice, being voiced by Wyley, takes the burden of poetry upon herself, internalising the emblem of her abandonment in versions such as Rilke’s, which is narrated from the Orpheus point of view; and the recognition of responsibility which comes with this transfer of power provides the frisson in the poem’s final sentence and complexly audible close.

“Ledger”, dedicated to her husband, author of The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1995), is a standing rebuke to that slightly too prompt idea of WH Auden’s that “poetry makes nothing happen”. Although about the effect of encountering Sirr’s book and reading its second section, a journal of lost love whose epigraph is the first line to Montale’s “Mottetti”, “Ledger” is not so much a poem about poetry (that discredited “meta” mode), as about the ever-urgent relationship between reading and acting upon what’s been read, a response that poetry elicits in its own ways more perhaps than the English poet cared to think – for, after all, if Ireland could hurt Yeats into poetry, perhaps poetry could do something back:

this ledger of lost love I’d never read before
that thrilled, made me stand up in the bookshop,

then make for the door, our future racing out onto
Dawson Street and into the city’s expanse,
Larkin raising his hands to me, the gulls cawing

encouragement as I sought you out, your face staring
from a high window over Parnell Square, the life
you’d described becoming ours, the door unlatched.

What poetry makes happen here might be represented by the implied transformation into affirmatives of those familiar sights and sounds, the statue of Jim Larkin, his hands raised to the skies in O’Connell Street, which can be indifferently passed on any ordinary day, and those seagulls, whose caws could as easily have been mocking. “The Ledger” can also be thought a pendant to “Eurydice Speaks”, for where in that poem it is the permanent separation of Orpheus and his lost companion that prompts the flow of song, in this one it is poetry that overcomes lost love and separation by unlatching a door.

An inspiration, and a style to match, one drawn to light and roaming things, should not be expected to employ closes like John Donne’s coiner minting the metal with his final blow, or that comes “right with a click like a closing box” as Yeats put it. There are some here, such as the attractive “Portobello Bridge Revisited”, a memory of Pearse Hutchinson, which build with all the delicacy and touch of these poems at their best, but then, to my ear, don’t quite clinch their discoveries. “At Rosses Point, Yeats’s Cat” is not one of these, though, while equally not being so showy about learning the trade as to click at its close:

Queen Méabh’s nipple was absent in cloud,
and night came upon us fast while our camera

caught you, Minnaloushe, slinking against
our backs and now suddenly alive, dancing

in the yellow light, lifting to the shifting
moon your changing eyes, burning, wise –

while we stayed put, transfixed, vowing
not to climb Knocknarea that night.

On a first reading, I found this quietly matter-of-factual ending entirely satisfying, and, wondering why that might be, noticed how the lines tauten with a pair of internal rhymes in the penultimate distich, and then how the final word “night” rounds in a concealed rhyme with the earlier “yellow light”, itself marked by a firm caesura in being buttressed against the initial stress on “lifting”. Thus the seemingly inconsequential decision that closes the poem is subtly braided into the immediately preceding lines, while eschewing anything quite so overt as the claim to “come right”.

Then, as in “Home”, there’s “the sun through the kitchen window, / glinting on my mother’s hair”, remembered when she “swivels from a full sink, / scattering suds and laughter / as she bends to me”. Sunlight, soap suds and laughter: it is such light and roaming things that the small girl running into the kitchen notices in this beautifully finessed poem; and it is the balancing act of drawing transitory subjects from the experiences of a life, presenting them with a deftness and lightness of touch that still delivers a weight of implication, while yet shunning overt claims to attention, that I found so captivating, so enabling in Enda Wyley’s The Painter on his Bike.

1/1/2020

Peter Robinson's most recent books, both published in 2019, are The Constitutionals: A Fiction and a collection of topical poems called Ravishing Europa. A new book of poems responding to paintings, Bonjour Mr Inshaw, is published this January. He is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.

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