Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The British poet Roddy Lumsden once told of how, walking through a gelid North American winter landscape, he came across a dead deer frozen in ice. "There's a poem," he thought. But try as he might, he couldn't make a poem of it. The truth of it was that the poem already existed: the natural produced something-- a still life, if you like-- that made the observer stop dead, surprised at this beautiful, upsetting turnabout of the expected. Like a good poem.
I had a similar non-writing experience while working on my latest manuscript, "The Day Hospital". The book comprises dramatic monolgues in the voices of elderly psychiatric patients, many of them immigrants. Although the pieces are well fictionalised, they all spring, one way or another, from people I met and nursed. There was one patient with advanced vascular dementia who'd fought in World War II and been highly decorated. He had almost no long or short term memory. He didn't know if he was married. Or, if he remembered he had been married, he couldn't remember that his wife had died 20 years before, or even her name. He never knew where he was. It was a quiet afternoon at the Day-Hospital. The patients were milling about, or drinking tea; I was preparing afternoon medication. Suddenly, this man, grabbed my arm and asked where Anne, his wife, was. "Is she dead?" It wasn't just the lucidity of what he said struck me, as the clear, unclouded look in his eyes. All his lines seemed to come sharp. We'd known each other a year, but it was the first true exchange we'd had. "Where are we? Some kind of hospital?" I locked up the drugs, and ushered him into the 'Reminiscence Room'.
We sat in 1940s style armchairs by a fake fire, a wireless on the mantlepiece, and a portrait of King George above us. Yes, we were in a kind of hospital, I told him. "What's wrong with me? What happened?" He was able to understand, absolutely, the nature and cause of his condition. And then we got down to brass tacks. When had his wife died? What of? Where was she buried? He sat opposite me, put his head in his hands and cried, brokenly, as if it were the first time he'd heard the news. But he pulled himself up, blew his nose. Like me, he seemed to sense that time was running out. "Is the war over?" "Who won?" I found myself telling this man who'd flown Spitfires over Germany my schoolgirl grasp of history: Hitler's suicide, the Italian switch, the late American entry. "And then," I gabbled, Russia became the Soviet Union, and we're in a Cold War, with nuclear weapons. Do you remember Ronald Reagan, that mediocre film actor? He was the last president of the USA! And you, you have medals. You're still talked about."
He squinted at each word, nodded, slapped his leg in disbelief. "It was the noise you won't believe in those bloody planes. Like a tin-can. Nearly went deaf. We were lucky. Every mission back home safely. Flying down the Elba on the watch out for Nazis. Nasties we called them."
Then we slowed down. "Who takes care of me now? What a bloody awful mess to be in."
I kept talking, but I could see his eyes becoming clouded again. Whichever capillaries and veins had briefly flooded with oxygen were becoming occluded, dammed up. It was as though, after years of stuggling through overgrown paths, brambles in the face, and catching legs, he'd pitched up, bewildered, in a clearing-- day-light, space, a map. But after ten minutes, he'd been hurled back into more undergrowth. As it turned out, there'd be no more lucid minutes in this man's life.
The day before he died he was lying in bed at home, listening to Mozart and conducting an imaginary orchestra. "Hello darling!" he called as I walked in. "I don't want to go anywhere today. Tell them I'm not well." So I squeezed his hand and left him blissfully knowing every note.
I tried to write about this incident when it happened, when I was 25. It was an amateurish short story. Later I tried to make it into a poem. And finally, when the voices of The Day-Hospital seemed to come as though through a séance, I thought I could capture him. But I couldn't. The moment was already defamiliarised. He was my deer in ice.
Shelley wrote in his "Defence of Poetry" that poetry should strip "the veil of familiarity" from the world. Poets do better with a walk down a street, or nothing happening in the middle of the night. Then they can peel away the familiar and show the extraordinary tensions and contrasts underneath. Even, at times, the transcendent. But deers in ice flip the cellar door up and dislocate our understanding. There are times, perhaps, when language is superfluous.