1010101010..., 2013, 7/7 bombings, Easter Wings, Fiona Moore, George Herbert, HappenStance Press, poem, poems, Poetry, Postcard, review, The Only Reason for Time, The Shirt, To the Moon 3: Autumn Equinox, verse
When my phone buzzed on that July morning, its screen read SOMETHING’S HAPPENED. DON’T WORRY. I’M OK. The brevity of text messages usually adds to their throw-away quality, but this one might as well have been wirelessed from an ocean liner, holed below the water-line. And the exhortation not to worry? Well, that had me worried. Break-time reconnected me with the world beyond the classroom and the talk was all tubes, buses and bombs. My girlfriend worked at the Royal Middlesex and travelled on the Piccadilly Line. It remained impossible to contact her for several hours. That evening, with no way to travel to work in the immediate future, she was driving to mine down an empty M40. The roadside matrices read: MAJOR INCIDENT IN LONDON TURN ON YOUR RADIO – a scene from a science fiction movie. The day’s sickening events reminded me of the fragility of our lives and dreams and, as my girlfriend travelled westwards, I knew that I wanted to share my life with her, and I knew that I had better get on with it.
Fiona Moore’s opening poem, Postcard, is spare and haunted. ‘Three days, and already I could write / a dissertation on the fastenings of gates’, she writes. The caesura after ‘Three days’ makes the first line falter before it has even begun. The pause also serves to highlight the phrase, which conjures thoughts not only of death, but also of resurrection. The poem then launches into a series of careful observations of the fastenings of gates. Each appears to have been seen for the first time and to have been created for an absent man, as one has a ‘bolt with a spring that’s always too strong’ and there’s an ominous note in ‘the double gate’s hard-edged central loop // with its guillotine rise/drop’. Having spent the last few years living on a farm, I smiled at ‘the frayed / Gordian knot of orange nylon twine, avoided // by climbing at the hinge end’. However, there’s something raw in this image: the knot suggests a problem too difficult to undo without a knife, without a painful wrench and, as a response to the death of a loved one, this poem is loaded with unresolved grief. Each stanza comprises a couplet, suggesting togetherness, yet the walk is solitary, and the presence of the lost other is palpable in the unfamiliar gate fastenings.
The careful structuring of these poems allows Moore to wrong-foot her reader with devastating results. The Shirt, for example, opens: ‘I didn’t find it for months, your shirt / bundled into a corner in the airing cupboard. / I shook it out. It had been cut / with long cuts, all the way up the sleeves / and up the front, so it looked like a plan / of something about to be put together. / They must have had to work so fast to / save you there was no time to unbutton it’. Again, Moore’s first line is raw, as her speaker uses the impersonal pronoun ‘it’ even before she uses the word ‘shirt’, either suggesting that this item of clothing has assumed totemic significance and has no need of a name, or that even saying the word shirt is difficult. Language is cruel, as the shirt requires the possessive ‘your’, though there is no you to own it. Dramatic as this symbol is, it feels positive, as plans and work imply creative acts. However, this shirt, itself hidden in a corner, demands that the speaker accesses the memory that ‘in three weeks the same thing / would happen to another shirt, a favourite, dull cotton whose thick weave made it look / as if all the pink shell-grains of sand / had come together on one beach’. This is when the poem hits the reader – with force. We were primed for some freak accident, a brush with death but now the effort and drama of our best medical care is revealed as a futile tug of war with death. The violence done to this shirt is more difficult to cope with, as this one is endowed with emotional significance. Its weave has been the subject of intense scrutiny: an eloquent expression of intimate time together, a complex symbol of love and loss.
1010101010… reads as a contemporary twist on George Herbert‘s Easter Wings. However, Herbert the Anglican priest has a font of faith to draw upon and so, as humanity reaches its nadir through its own deliberate fault and Herbert’s lines wilt in sin, God’s intervention allows ascent and Herbert’s lines grow like a poetic wing-beat. In Moore’s poem, no such possibility of redemption or resurrection is allowed and her lines shrink with mortal inevitability. ‘Your death works in binary mode / on/off, forget/remember – / a cold code to decipher, / too late for us’. We are a secular society and nowhere is the pain of a godless of the universe felt more keenly than in our attitudes to death. Reading Moore’s poem, I ache for Herbert’s eventual flight on Easter wings, but this is not for us.
Despite its personal impetus, The Only Reason for Time asks existential questions, and Moore’s poetry is honest and dignified. The humdrum details of domestic life are observed with precision and each note the collection strikes rings true. It takes no shortcuts and smoothes no corners. Yet, above all, this collection is testament to the endurance of the human spirit and, despite Fiona Moore’s restrained articulation of the pain of loss, something does come of nothing; these terrific poems, wrestled from the darkness, matter so much because the now is all we have and we need the inspiration to have the courage to love – and lose.