Alan Bennett‘s new play, People, closes with the line ‘Let lost be lost. Let gone be gone, and not fetched back.’ It’s easy to sympathise with his heroine, Dorothy, as the fresh pointing, brash signage, public conveniences and gift shop cut the heart from those remote spots which should be wild, mouldering and inaccessible to coach parties, although I’m thinking more English Heritage than National Trust here. Our sense of mortality should give us an icy squeeze when we catch sight of one of these places glowering from a peak above us. They are shrines to our absence and seeing our mathematics and reason reverting to rounder, organic forms and softer colours should both thrill and horrify us.
The elegiac Old English poem, The Ruin, which is probably about the crumbling splendour of the Roman baths at Bath is a fine ruin in itself. The manuscript is in the Exeter Book, fourteen pages of which are damaged by fire and the diagonal burn renders sections of the poem illegible. In Crossley-Holland’s and Mitchell’s translation we read: ‘Wonderful is this wall of stone, wrecked by fate. / The city buildings crumble, the bold works of the giants decay. / Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed, / Barred gates are gone, gateways have gaping mouths, hoar frost clings to mortar’. The scarring of the manuscript lends absolute weight to these words. The ruined poem thrills us as the Roman baths are viewed as ‘the bold works of the giants’ by the Anglo Saxons and we in turn view the culture which created The Ruin as dark, mysterious and alien.
In The Havocs, Jacob Polley’s The Ruin is a sensitive, fragile reworking of his Old English source material. His labial w and nasal m alliterate to the beat of a smith’s hammer, creating an authentic Old English sound and feel. However, Polley’s Roman ’tile floors gleamed / with muscle girls and monster fish’ and remind us of bachelor pads decorated with the pneumatic bliss of lads’ mags. ‘Gleamed’ contrasts the shiny newness of the now with the mottled and scarred then and, although Polley never states it, his elegy invites us to see our materialism in the memory of a shiny, new Bath. By presenting the Romans as ‘men making merry, their shadows merging, / nimble as a change of mind, massive on the inner walls’, Polley uses the massive shadows to rework the giants of the Old English original, revealing the Romans as just men, no matter what awe their works inspired. Below the burn, the manuscript of the original poem reads that ‘Death struck down every valiant man’, their bravery in battle shown to be little use against the power of death. However, Polley’s version offers something more apocalyptic, as ‘Plague came, within / and without. No one, however high, whatever wit, / was spared. Here, wide open to the wind, is where / breath was fought for, where men raved’. Since the 1960s, the word rave has also meant a party with dancing and drinking and, in the late 1980s, it also implied the use of recreational drugs like Ecstasy, so the ‘making merry’ of Polley’s first part turns sour and the poem ends with the stark fragment, ‘But all such days are gone’. It’s a pleasure reading poetry like this. Sure, loose reworkings of Old English poems are nothing new: just look at Ezra Pound’s vital The Seafarer. However, Polley’s poem presents urban hedonism as susceptible to epidemic and there’s a worried glance to the future in this poem inspired by the past.
In First Bike, Polley covers similar ground, as, ‘There, at the bottom of the river. / Time slips. The leaves are the leaves / of woods long felled, gold still, like treasure. / The current turns one wheel as if // you had just laid it down to run / from year to year, from bright to shade, / across the bridge from being young / to here where you stand, unwise and afraid // in grown-up shoes’. However, with this more personal subject matter, mutability is projected onto the bike and away from the father, as if the idea of this were too painful even to contemplate. The current still idly ‘turns one wheel’, as if the poet is unable to accept the loss of childhood. There’s a troubling environmental subtext here too. In the developed world we all know that the title’s ‘first’ signals the beginning of acquisitiveness: first the bikes and then the cars. What, we wonder, is this bike doing at the bottom of the river? Is there no end to our irresponsible culture of consumption? As ‘The current turns one wheel’, I’m reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Convergence of the Twain, where The Titanic’s boilers are turned ‘to rhythmic tidal lyres’ by the cold current passing through them. At once, Polley’s childhood bike transforms into a symbol of vaingloriousness, a vulgar display of consumption. Polley has raised the bar on Hardy here: it’s all very well for left-leaning poets to chastise the über rich, but we are all guilty of a consumption the like of which the planet has never experienced before. What are we doing about it and what are we bequeathing to our children?
This is not to say that the The Havocs is all doom and gloom. The poem Livings offers an engaging set of riddles which, like The Ruin, also draw their inspiration from The Exeter Book: ‘I am one who is many. My work is play. / I’ll die many times before I decay’. An actor, perhaps? The jargon of Renaissance would have us think that the paintings of the Renaissance were divine objects for veneration, still alive as changes to their chemistry cause ‘oxidizings – greens gone to brown / or black’. However, the poem’s scientific language is debunked at the end. ‘Rare the item that’s escaped abuse: / at Arezzo, the Magdalene fresco / appears superbly intact until / one notes the large disfiguring splotch / thanks to splashings from the font’. Our secular vaingloriousness is mocked as we are reminded of art’s ability to teach and inspire. The fresco’s disfiguring splotch is a wound sustained in the line of duty, saving infant souls. Like the burned and scarred The Ruin, one could almost say that the painting gains another layer of meaning from the splotch. Polley gently reminds us that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.