by Gloria Dawson
Valzhyna Mort seemed tiny on the vast dark blue stage of the Purcell Room. She read with directness and passion, throwing us “an acrobat in a fiery hoop” and white apples drowning in a black lake. Hard sounds sparked off each other but she always seemed to just keep hold of the sparks, hard and tight. I saw too, though, a healthy mistrust of the neatness of metaphor; the drowning white apples are just for the image, they do not necessarily mean. Recollection is not simple or hermetic either; she sees a wall, “blood invisible on its red bricks.” It’s these absent presences which make her a small Cassandra, bursting with intense cruelty and wisdom. Her work reminds us, as tragedy does, that suffering can be limitless, can be nameless and immeasurable; “horror no longer had a signifier.” But the poet can train their eye on the wall with the invisible stain; they can see the shape of the past, even when it has been scrubbed out. I can’t see or feel any whole poem that she read (and she didn’t fill her allotted time, either; I wish there had been more) – but images burn through, and I can see her sureness.
I was incredibly excited to see Mourid Barghouti, whose 1997 meditation on his life and his city, I Saw Ramallah, is one of the best books I have ever read. He was well-paired with Mort – both their poems tend towards concision, repetition, aphorism. More than with Mort, I found the running translation on the big screen above his head a problem. I wanted to watch every movement of his hands, his body, his lips; they shaped the poem as much as his vocal chords (I find Arabic effortlessly mournful, soft yet powerful, and I cannot match English to it at all. I have almost no comprehension of Arabic but I sense that its rhetoric often sounds clumsy and trite when rendered into English). Barghouti reminded me tonight that it is details that wound us the most – in them we see ourselves, and we can mark change, or consistency. Barghouti has a moral seeing rather than a moral saying. Take these last lines from ‘The Three Cypress Trees’:
Yesterday, in my sudden cheerfulness,
I saw their immortality.
Today, in my sudden sorrow,
I saw the axe.
The devil is in the details, but so too is God, or redemption. Meaning for Barghouti is not always permanent, but it is always true. The object is always the same, be it the cypress or the cloak of his grandfather in a vision, wearing ‘that cloak, not a different cloak, that same cloak’; the cloak that now hangs from the jaws of a bulldozer. The past is always now, it leaps over what happens after it. The hand of his grandfather, ‘the hand that opens in forgiveness’, is also ‘the hand that was amputated many years ago.’ The anti-chronological revelation is shocking, but not just that. It reminded me that gesture is always sincere. And it was said with such quietness and reserve.
After an interval, Jorie Graham and Mark Doty read. I was anticipating Graham with excitement and worry. I had not enjoyed her recent work, Sea Change, and had concluded, like the man in the record shop, that she has never bettered her early collections. She is, in some ways, deeply complacent; she knows that she is revered enough to spend ten minutes of her allocated time on a preamble about the importance of artistic imagination in allowing people access to the impending climate catastrophe (rather marred by easy side-swipes at Sarah Palin). Her work frequently seems abstruse, so in some ways the context she gave was helpful, although she could have been more concise. In my final year at university I spent some months studying Graham’s work, and never considered her ‘politics’ (I think I discovered John Kinsella at the same time and wrote her off against him).In fact, her lifelong projects of ‘undoing’ and of going against conclusion and direction sit well with tonight’s impassioned defence of the need for ecological understanding through art. In one of tonight’s three poems, the line ‘I multiply on the face of the Earth’ rings out. Here is the spreading of an artistic imagination that at least attempts omnipresence, whilst at the same time resting in the details as markers (in a rather different way from Barghouti);
Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms, twelve
blossoms on three different
branches, which for us, personally, means none this coming spring.
George said afterwards he found the reading dispiriting but I found there was light (there is always light in Graham’s poems) as well as darkness. A typically Graham-esque pronouncement flew out: ‘You have a wild unstoppable rumour for a soul’. Mercifully, Graham does not here indulge her tendency to get hung up about what she means. She simply says it. ‘I have become the action of beauty again.’ The relationship between making beauty and saying you see it – she has enthusiasm for this. And although she and Barghouti seemingly have little in common, they both reminded us that poetry is about the present – the past and future being far, being realized, in that present. Paradoxically perhaps, poetry can show us in a unique way the perversion of nature that is global warming – the tree fruiting and flowering at the same time, the seasons collapsed. It is very hard to write about what Graham does (doubly so if you’ve studied her) – some people would use this as central to their dislike of her. She is not marketable. But there is something alchemical in her best linkages and stoppages and she conjured tears from me. I find it hard to explain how or why.
I have never been grabbed by Mark Doty. He was warm, open and polished but I still eluded his grasp. Like Graham, he has a distrust of anthropomorphism, worrying in his first poem about ‘freighting [the bat] with something not exactly his’. His anxiety feels, though, self-regarding rather than world-regarding. And he wanted us to like him. Not entirely his fault, though, this bum note after such energetic and different readings. He is a poet of another cast entirely, and I would have left him off an already-crowded platform. I feel it rather an insult that two of the most significant living poets were then put with two other also-significant poets. After all, all four had much material to draw from. This felt like a rather tokenistic internationalism, a taster menu of four full-flavoured national dishes, the South Bank Centre perhaps biting off more than it could chew. Each one of these poets, especially Barghouti and Graham, deserved more time and consideration.