The center of Seeing Things—and perhaps the very center of his poetry, and maybe even his greatest achievement—is the sequence called “Squarings,” which consists of forty-eight twelve-line poems. He never wrote about nature, history, myth, other poets, or his own rural upbringing so well. This week I will post my favorite poems from each of the sequence’s four parts.
And strike this scene in gold too, in relief,
So that a greedy eye cannot exhaust it:
Stable straw, Rembrandt-gleam and burnish
Where my father bends to a tea-chest packed with salt,
The hurricane lamp held up at eye-level
In his bunched left fist, his right hand foraging
For the unbleeding, vivid-fleshed bacon
Home-cured hocks pulled up into the light
For pondering awhile and putting back.
That night I owned the piled grain of Egypt.
I watched the sentry’s torchlight on the hoard.
I stood in the door, unseen and blazed upon.
Rat-poison the colour of blood pudding
Went phosphorescent when it was being spread:
Its sparky rancid shine under the blade
Brought everything to life – like news of murder
Or the sight of a parked car occupied by lovers
On a side road, or stories of bull victims.
If a muse had sung the anger of Achilles
It would not have heightened the world-danger more.
It was all there in the fresh rat-poison
Corposant on mouldy, dried-up crusts.
On winter evenings I loved its reek and risk.
And windfalls freezing on the outhouse roof.
Memory as a building or a city,
Well lighted, well laid out, appointed with
Tableaux vivants and costumed effigies –
Statues in purple cloaks, or painted red,
Ones wearing crowns, ones smeared with mud or blood:
So that the mind’s eye could haunt itself
With fixed associations and learn to read
Its own contents in meaningful order,
Ancient textbooks recommended that
Familiar places be linked deliberately
With a code of images. You knew the portent
In each setting, you blinked and concentrated.
On the bus-trip into saga country
Ivan Malinowski wrote a poem
About the nuclear submarines offshore
From an abandoned whaling station.
I remember it as a frisson, but cannot
Remember any words. What I wanted then
Was a poem of utter evening:
The thirteenth century, weird midnight sun
Setting at eye-level with Snorri Sturluson,
Who has come out to bathe in a hot spring
And sit through the stillness after milking time,
Laved and ensconced in the throne-room of his mind.