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Neil Reeve

Twilight Zones:

J H Prynne’s The Land of Saint Martin

This piece is 8,000 words or about twenty printed pages long.

“The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sun-set. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”

This is the epigraph to Prynne’s poem-sequence The Land of Saint Martin — one of his short symmetrical sets, with eight separately titled eight-line stanzas. Or does this prose passage overrun the normal conventions of the epigraph and become an integral part of the work? Its spaciousness and coherence contrast immediately with the compressed verse writing that follows it, while its length gives it more the air of a counterweight than an introductory flourish, more of a parallel discourse to which we might return than a tag we might glance at and pass over. Prynne makes regular and varied use of epigraphs, but they do not often loom over their texts with quite the prominence of this one. What is being said in it supports the idea of a parallel discourse suspiciously eagerly, since the speaker is in the process of comparing different worlds and attitudes. Meanwhile, a crowd of recognisably Prynnean preoccupations starts to gather — the traveller with strange news, the threshold, the sense of a lowered horizon of expectations, the idea of a crossing or transition held in anticipation and not yet made. Vaguely familiar literary allusions seem to be at work: Eliot’s Waste Landers or Hollow Men, perhaps, stranded on the near bank, or the Cimmerians in Homer (to whom Prynne made more explicit reference in a poem in The White Stones), who lived ‘at the frontiers of the world’, by the ‘deep-flowing River of Ocean’, where, ‘when the bright Sun climbs the sky, no ray from him can penetrate to them, nor can he see them as he drops from heaven and sinks once more to earth’ — except that Homer’s Cimmerians did not seem ‘contented’ in their world of eternal monochrome; they were described as ‘that unhappy folk’. Maybe the voice in this passage speaks from a limbo whose inhabitants have uncomplainingly accepted the rightness of the judgement that placed them there. The sentence beginning ‘moreover’ seems to imply that the presence nearby of an inaccessible ‘luminous country’ actually enhances their contentment; for a variety of reasons it could be enough for them to be aware of such a place without wanting to explore it. Or it could be that this second sentence reflects a concern on the traveller’s part to play down the alien nature of his or her life in order to placate a perhaps dangerously baffled audience. Contentment with a twilit existence might not readily be understood by foreigners except in terms of some brighter prospect waiting to redeem it — in this case a prospect which, unlike most redemptive prospects, was tantalisingly visible from the current world, and thus more likely to encourage prudence than risky initiatives. Depending on whether we take this second sentence to be a tactical account or a true one, being ‘contented’ would seem either to be a matter of living in the here-and-now rather than in anxious consciousness of what ‘precedes’ and ‘follows’; or to be a matter of resting in passivity — put another way, a withdrawal from anything that might make for grandeur, such as ‘sun-rise’ or ‘sun-set’, or for human aspiration or defeat: something like the quietism Donald davie attributed to Prynne in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, and of which this passage might equally suggest a confirmation or an ironic rebuttal. To anticipate for a moment, some further hints of literary allusion later in the poem could also bear upon this: ‘going on’, at the end of the fifth stanza, puts us momentarily in touch with a Beckettian vocabulary of defiant or whimsical endurance, without securely endorsing its tone (the phrase ‘ill said’ appeared in this poem before Beckett used it in one of his titles in 1981); and at the end of stanza 4 the poem interferes with a talismanic phrase of Yeats:

The chance
goes bit by bit across the air
and is changed, or entire, as
yet the time flies utterly

— as if to undercut ‘changed utterly’, and dissent from, while remembering, the idea of a heroic, spontaneous absoluteness by which one condition crosses over or gives way to another.

    The curiosity which fuels our speculations about the prose passage would seem to put us at odds with the contentment described in it. Prynne’s readers have to accustom themselves to such paradoxes, as well as to an intermittent, inhibiting anxiety that commentary of any kind on work like this might constitute some form of violation. But I do not think one should underestimate the importance of the thrill and the humour of the chase in reading Prynne. We do not need actually to reach a luminous country in order to sense that some buried life of words is being drawn almost to the surface and compelling us to feel the tremors. It is hard to describe the romantic forces at work in our reading without sounding lame or facetious, but I do not think anyone could go very far with these poems without activating such forces, even if only by suspending romanticism in favour of the sternest forensic account available, and thus paying romanticism implied tribute. The Land of Saint Martin does not draw on a wide lexical range or a set of complex prosodic and rhetorical effects; its appeal, for me, has to do with a sense of ever-expanding potential released from the most minimal resources, something mysteriously related to the teasing, urbane, flirtatious quality of Prynne’s lyricism, the same gestures holding meaning discreetly off while soliciting its approach.

    What happens to the poem once the epigraph has been tracked to its actual source? It is a fairly free rendering into English of a passage from a Latin text by William of Newburgh or Newbridge, collected in the Breviary of Suffolk for 1618, recounting the story of the Green Children of Woolpit, a village outside Bury St Edmunds. Sometime ‘in the reign of King Stephen’, as the chronicler reports, two children, brother and sister, appeared one morning in a harvest field, ‘with their whole bodies green and dressed in clothing of unusual colour and material’. They wandered about in amazement, staring at the villagers, speaking in a strange tongue, apparently able to eat nothing but the pith from the inside of bean pods; ‘they lived on this food for some months until they got used to bread. Then gradually their colour changed as the nature of our food affected them and they became like us; they also learned the use of our language’. Once they were able to speak, they explained that they came from ‘the land of Saint Martin’; that one day, while tending herds in the fields, they were overwhelmed by a violent rushing sound (other versions of the story talk of a gentle, bell-like sound and a journye through underground caverns), and found themselves inexplicably transported to Woolpit; that although there were churches in their own country like the ones they saw around them, and Saint Martin was greatly venerated there, many other things were very unlike: principally, that ‘the sun does not rise on our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight ...’ etc. The boy died soon afterwards, while his sister, ‘who now was not much different from our own women’, eventually married a man from Kings Lynn and drifted into obscurity.

    Legends of green children have frequently been put to literary use, perhaps most notably and eccentrically in Herbert Read’s fantasy-novel The Green Child (1935),where the green colouring, instead of suggesting an immediate trace of living Nature, came from limestone phosphorescence, and the setting was an underground cave system in which human bodies gradually petrified. Stories very similar to one another emerge from different folk traditions. The chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall gives a slightly different account of the Woolpit story, without the details of Saint Martin’s Land. A version set in Essex, around the time of the plague of 1665, seems designed to contrast the viciousness of certain exploitative bourgeois, who ill-treat the children and exhibit them in cages for money, with the wisdom and sympathy of the king who orders them to be set free. A story in outline almost identical to the Woolpit version, including similar comments about the river and the lack of sunlight, was recorded in southern Spain as recently as 1887. In addition, since the name ‘Woolpit’ was thought to have been derived from ‘wolf pits’, late-Saxon animal traps from whose depths the children were supposed to have emerged, the thematic surround of this story would probably now have to include not only all the hard work done in the modern world by the word ‘green’ [Note 1], but the legacy of the wolf-child tale permeating Western culture at least since the myths of ancient Rome, with connotations of the primal encounter, ‘innocence’ and loss, the noble savage, the romance of the Other, the birth of civilisation, etc.

    Stories like the Green Children of Woolpit tend to arise in times of uncertainty or civil disturbance, when normal existence seems suspended on a cusp that could shift it either way; and because strange apparitions have always been regarded as portents of upheaval, the stories documenting them are open to seizure for both progressive and reactionary purposes. They compress into the forms of local legend and mystery a jumbled range of material, much of it in the course of short- or long-term historical transformation, the traces of which survive in the language and give it a fully intertextual flavour. In this one, for instance, the outline of what is said clearly does owe something to the chronicler’s garbled memories of that passage from Homer. The idea of ‘St Martin’s Land’ may have begun as ‘the land of martins’, originally meaning imps or demons, dangerous wood-fairies, an energetically pagan realm which the story is in the process of colonising into one of Christian meekness and piety; the vision of a luminous country may derive from the most celebrated legend of St Martin himself, Martin of Tours, who, when serving as a soldier, cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar, and was granted a vision of Christ telling the angels of this act of charity. The mutual unintelligibility of Woolpit people and strangers could reflect quite localised dialect differences as well as unfamiliarity with neighbouring customs; and the green colouring would naturally result from anaemia brought on by prolonged reliance on an exclusively bean- and leaf-based diet (some of the initially wild behaviour of the children mentioned in the various versions could also indicate the presence of ergot poisoning from eating infected rye grass, felt by some historians to account for the basic symptoms of lycanthropy as recorded in the Middle Ages, thus bringing the ‘wolf-pits’ back into play). Perhaps the net effect of the chronicler’s narrative is to control and ultimately eradicate the strangeness that attracts it — a process replicated, to an extent, in our enlightened explanations; both then take their place in the long history of more or less coercive assimilation, to which romantic ideas of ‘the child’, ‘nature’, and ‘loss’ were both a reaction and an unwitting contributor. Many of Prynne’s poems, of the 1970s particularly, are concerned with children and with adult responses to them, in which issues and paradoxes like these seem to be implicated. I am thinking of A Night Square, Into The Day, some pieces inWound Response. It seems to me that in the moments of intense feeling that parents experience in respect of the changes they see their children undergoing, some of the recurrent preoccupations of Prynne’s work — with the inner processes of the body, with vulnerability, with speed of movement, with barely-perceptible alterations at the edges of things — seem to lose their abstractness and become suddenly vital and embodied.

    The scrupulous reader might rule all this illegitimate, insist on the sufficiency of what is explicitly given in the text, and revert to the epigraph of The Land of Saint Martin as it actually appears, uncontextualised and unattributed. It need do no more than alert us to the idea of an unspecified alternative world, with different conditions of existence and unfamiliar codes of meaning, for us to read the remainder of the text as an experiment in alternative discourse, whose operations seem to be organised in special ways: around paired or detached opposites, within and across the stanza blocks (‘start’/‘stop’, ‘break’/‘mend’, ‘quick’/‘slow’, ‘left’/‘right’, etc.); around some Roussel-esque letter slippage (‘stop’/‘step’, ‘will’/‘well’, ‘life’/‘like’) and shift of word order (‘see but leave, and’/ ‘and leave but see’); around internal rhyme and half-rhyme; and primarily perhaps around the mass of prepositions which draw attention to the spatial and temporal relationships between objects or properties, to links and connections rather than autonomous sites. The interest in alternative worlds goes back in Prynne’s work at least as far as ‘Aristeas, In Seven Years’ (1965), but the form it takes here seems rather to anticipate more recent developments, such as Not-You (1993), a work in which, as John Wilkinson has shown, Prynne attempted to produce poetry structured by precise formal transactions between data-sets rather than by speech acts, a discourse-world different from any in which ‘you’ might feel at home. Perhaps The Land of Saint Martin occupies an intermediate stage, in which familiar human interventions, of will and desire, occur in tension with the more abstract assembling and stabilising procedures from which this ‘other’ world seems to be constructed, a tension of misalignment marked by words like ‘slip’, ‘fall’, ‘hurt’, ‘damage’, ‘lost’. Prepositional linkages, such as ‘under’, ‘after’, or ‘on top’, can also signify other kinds of relationship, of dominance and subjection, master and pupil, or of coercion and resistance, relationships which throughout the poem seem to shape themselves briefly before slipping apart; and since the epigraph specifies a place ‘divided’ from us but ‘not far distant’, it is tempting at times to imagine the ‘luminous country’ to be childhood itself, glowing with the force of projections on it. The remarks that follow will try to allow in as many connotations of the Woolpit story as they can, and attempt to trace some of the processes within which the ‘sister speaks’ (7:1), coming to utter the lines of the epigraph at a point of human crisis, somewhere between her own world and the one that is absorbing her.


Spill the dish his lip said,
at the side, this one, stop
and run and stop then. Was
the day wet when he set
to it, for his cheek the step
on top. Wish to wish inside,
the slip led to this. Within
and done, a life of silt.

     Somebody, either on account of deafness or because the sounds are hard to catch, might be trying to lip-read his or her way through a series of curt, baffling, but apparently precise instructions; tracking the speaker’s lip-movements could be the only way of finding an authenticating human reference-point for words which in themselves remain mysterious. Did he really say ‘spill the dish’? The instructions are obscure enough to be put to work in various contexts. ‘Stop and run and stop then’ could be part of a playground game, or of some form of tense military exercise, where the barked commands of the sergeant-major intersperse with the recruits’ whispered attempts to help each other out — ‘at the side, this one’; miniature dramas seem to form themselves readily from these fragments of phrases. We could also be reminded of computer instructions, with ‘stop’ and ‘run’ no longer triggers for rapid or terrified human reaction, but prompts for the keyboard operator to call up or shift around blocks of data. ‘Stop’ and ‘run’ facilities could enable the operator to measure or rearrange the positions of items relative to each other, even where the items themselves are not clearly understood — a rudimentary ‘start’ at finding one’s way around in an alien world. The indifference of the instruction-words ‘stop’, ‘run’, ‘send’, etc., to the data they dispose or the messages they activate, can mirror the effect of the positional markers whose prominence in the text was mentioned earlier — ‘at the side’, ‘at the back’, ‘under’, ‘over’, ‘on’, ‘off’, ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘up’, ‘down’: words which offer a minimal kind of security, a set of trustworthy bearings amid so much strangeness, since their meanings hold good irrespective of the meanings of the items they connect, or of the world in which the connections occur. The frequency with which such words appear could also suggest how pressing the need for such security is to be, how in the face of terror or uneasiness the organism may instinctively draw itself back to its fundamental capacities, to right itself (in a text full of slipping and falling), and to orientate itself (in a text full of starting, stopping, going on and turning round).

     If on the other hand we read the opening line another way, with the ‘lip’ belonging to a child, then something quite different could  happen: a neurological reflex, an uncontrollable spasm of revulsion in which an infant spits out the food which an adult offers. ‘Spill the dish’, in the urgency of nerve-ends and skin surfaces reacting independently of consciousness, would mark a moment of abjection, a moment in which the self gives birth to itself in the violence of recoil: a psychologically distinctive moment for the poetic text to ‘start’. Kristeva’s theory of abjection, in which she regards the fundamental psychic opposition as that between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, subsuming that between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, could have something to say to this. If, in abjection, ‘nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory’, then instead of attempting to find his way around an alien or hostile world by measuring, checking and sorting, the child forces the world away from him:

I imagine a child who has swallowed up his parents too soon,
who frightens himself on that account, ‘all by himself,’ and,
to save himself, rejects and throws up everything that is
given to him — all gifts, all objects ... Even before things
for him are — hence before they are signifiable — he drives
them out, dominated by drive as he is, and constitutes his
own territory, edged by the abject.

Kristeva’s name for this child is a ‘deject’, one who ‘never stops demarcating his universe, whose fluid confines — for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject — constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh’: a remark which almost seems to be offering a ghostly commentary on lines such as

at the side, this one, stop
and run and stop then

where ‘stop and run and stop’ entails a constant oscillation from rigid to fluid and back. The deject, ‘instead of sounding himself as to his “being”, does so concerning his place: “Where am I?” instead of “Who am I?” ... The abject from which he does not cease separating is for him, in short, a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered’. This idea of a life which is permanently astray, which cannot settle, always in search of shelter but never lastingly protected, may throw fresh light on the flurry of positioning-words in the text, and the hints of a house or building somewhere in the shadows  — ‘roof’, ‘floor’, ‘shelf’, ‘door’, ‘table’: the table on which ‘damage mounts’, as, perhaps, more and more nourishment is rejected and more and more objects disordered.

     Therapists such as Frances Tustin have discussed similar conditions rather differently, as indicators of a form of psychotic autism. Most current researchers understand autism to be the result of certain defects in the chemical structure of the brain, and thus not amenable to psychiatric treatment, but much of Tustin’s work dates from the 1970s (when the poem itself was written), at which time autism was widely regarded as an emotional illness, caused by an excessively traumatic or inadequately managed separation from the mother. The child may experience the trauma as the loss of part of the body connected with the mouth, making the ‘lip’ or the ‘cheek’ for example the focal points of damage, setting off a kind of auto-immune reaction in which the body attempts to mend itself. The child seizes upon objects around it, including words and sounds, to plug the imaginary gaps. These objects are manipulated in repetitive ways which draw them as it were inside the child, and reduce the threat posed by their externality. As surrogate components of the self, filling up the holes or wounds in the body, they offer the child the delusion of completeness once given by fusion with the mother. For autistic children, Tustin writes,

objects in the outside world are not allowed to keep
their quality of separateness and clear distinctiveness.
The strangeness of the ‘not-me’ is diminished by drawing
it into their ‘me-ness’, and then it becomes less threatening.

Tustin suggested further that in some extreme cases of autism a child who babbles in echolalia, or takes one word for another similar to it (‘stop’, ‘step’, ‘slip’, for example, or in her case study, ‘Tustin’ and ‘Austin’), is not exactly playing with rhymes or making puns, since to do so would be to have accepted his bodily separateness from the objects manipulated. On the contrary, since to his senses the words have the same sound or shape, they are for him the same word, and thus able to offer comfort by annihilating the ‘not-self’ experiences which the differences between words would otherwise signify. [Note 2]

     In some ways the stanza could be said to resemble the haphazard result of a conditionability trial, where the autistic child is offered a set of words, objects and verbal instructions which can be formed into elementary grammatical structures, and has responded by dissolving the words and phrase-sets into their constituent parts and reassembling them in different forms from the same rack of letters; so ‘spill the dish’ becomes ‘his lip said’, or ‘at the side’; or, later, ‘lip said’ becomes ‘slip led’, while gradually new letters are added to the original set to expand the repertoire. Meanwhile ‘was the day wet’, for example, or ‘the slip led to this’, sound like memos and running commentaries in the therapist’s notebook. There is a sense on the one hand of a child exploring the sensual and tactile values of words and letters, and on the other of the special fun to be had from the activity of word-processing — an activity that could have many attractions for a child suffering the kind of psychological damage these forms of therapy were attempting to target, since it gives him the power to take objects over, move them around, and reorganise the relationships between them, instead of having to confront them in fixed and potentially threatening positions.

    There is another stage of child development, the stage of adolescent rebellion against whatever dishes the adult world sets before you. Rejection here is conscious and deliberate, as desire and ‘wish’ interfere with regulation and programme, subjecting them to the disruptive play of spilling, running and slipping. Now we can read ‘lip’ and ‘cheek’ as the terms adults use to designate juvenile insolence — a striking linguistic and idiomatic conversion, whereby the parts of the body most intimately connected with infant orality and loss are seen later in life as the sources of verbal challenge to the gravity of authority. ‘For his cheek the step on top’ now hints at some obscure punishment meted out to a transgressor, a hint reinforced by the way ‘the slip led to this’ seems to recast and condense the proposals and sound patterns of the stanza’s opening line into a kind of ironic come-uppance. I would like to push this idea a little further. ‘Was/the day wet when he set/to it’ sounds to me like an adult’s sarcastic, menacing interrogation of a child who has spilt something and soaked himself and his surroundings. The question is not asked directly of the child, but of someone else who has reported the offence; the child himself is objectified and excluded, made to wait in silence while his fate is determined. Of course, a child is most likely to wet himself with urine, whose unscheduled appearance is often referred to as a ‘slip’; ‘stop and run and stop then’ might even indicate the struggle to hold on under unbearable pressure and the relief as the muscles give way (at the end of the poem we find the plaintive comment, ‘he tried to hold’). Urination has a kind of role in each of the little dramas which the stanza seems to be feeding. In the Kristevan theory of abjection, urination would be one of the expulsive drives which enact a pre-symbolic rehearsal for the eventual rejection of the mother, identified at this level with the urine itself, which permeates the boundary between inside and outside in a momentary jouissance where self and other are inseparable (rapidly followed by shivering discomfort, as the warm sensation starts to chill off). But wetting oneself is most characteristically provoked by terror, especially perhaps the terror of imperative violence demanding an instant answer which the subject cannot confidently produce — as in our imaginary military scene, where ‘stop and run and stop then’ has the subject scurrying to and fro in a panic attempt to please, obey, and save himself.

     Both rebellious and compliant children could ‘wish to wish inside’: the one by substituting his or her own wishes for those imposed externally, and the other by passing the tests set by the ‘master’ world and becoming so incorporated by it as to be able to wish its wishes. But at some cruel level of intransigence, this seemingly innocent desire to be initiated could itself be a ‘slip’, an un-programmed move beyond the purely passive following of instructions without presuming where they might lead, or how one might benefit from them; hence both the compliant and the rebellious might equally be subjected to the unspecifiable punishment (‘this’) which seems to follow any surge of initiative. Later in the poem, a figure is again seen to slip, upon intervening in some personal capacity — ‘he gives a hand and falls/exactly’: the fate of green children through the ages was to be subjected to a bewildering series of clinical tasks and reflex-tests while authority assessed the spectacle and took notes. But ‘wish to wish inside’ could also belong to the psychoanalytic drama, the drama of primal identity, whereby desire and language alike are born from the ‘slip’, the spillage whereby a subject separates itself from its objects and abjects in order to be, and in order to be able to ‘wish’ for what it has lost. The demonstrative ‘this’ now seems to gesture towards the whole condition of human expression and meaning into which the subject has entered. If life thereafter is ‘a life of silt’, it is because the identity is composed from the deposits left behind by things flowing over and past it; while in the other narrative, the narrative of conscious social integration, ‘within/and done, a life of silt’ could speak of the stagnation following the accomplishment of the move ‘inside’, the last ‘step/on top’ after an arduous climb, which might have been celebrated with a flag raised over the summit, but which opens a view only of an already circumscribed horizon, sterile and barren in the absence of the private wishes and desires which the compliant have abandoned.

    Does the pursuit of these narratives and their offshoots enable us to read this opening stanza as a ground plan upon which its successors will build? What has been traced so far could be described as an interplay between staccato assertiveness and disruptive softening, an interplay which could almost give the poem the character of a Bakhtinian carnival, one in which sound-patterns and inflections of tone carry the mutual challenges that are usually effected by separate discourses — the ‘d’ against the ‘sh’ in ‘dish’, for instance, forming one of the inaugural contrasts (the word ‘dish’ itself standing both for hard container and soft contents). It sounds a little like the opening of To The Lighthouse, with the child sandwiched in the tensions between father and mother. I would not want to push the carnival element too far; any sense of overspill seems readily contained by the discipline of line and square, and the poem overall seems preoccupied with questions of orientation and procedure, with maintaining the integrity of positions as much as with overthrowing them. Whether we try to trace a pattern derived from theories of abjection, from autism or other communication difficulties, from the image of an alienated child in search of bearings, from an adult’s efforts to define and stabilise the recalcitrant object, or even from the condition of those who have lost, through illness or injury, the powers of speech they once had (a frequent concern of Wound Response), there seems to be a special stress on that penultimate line, ‘he tried to hold’. The ‘deject’ was constantly obliged to rebuild his world as it liquefied around him, while the child tried to pick and measure a route between problems that avoided the potentially disintegrating force of their full impact. Although the rest of the poem does not pursue quite so concentrated a use as this stanza makes of primal word- and letter-play, there is nonetheless an increasingly complex concert of the tones potentially attached to phrases, tones which, like the prepositional markers, are able to construct temporary relationships between imaginary interlocutors, temporarily secured positions from which to speak, or to listen, or to begin to move on, and it is this that I am interested in trying to explore: the momentum of the poem, its variations of pace, the sense in it of feelers reaching out and recoiling.

     I can only gesture in the direction of everything that might be followed through, but I shall try to pick out a few aspects that bear on this impression. Commands and injunctions, as I suggested, punctuate the text from the outset. At one end of the tonal spectrum is the direct, impersonal order, such as ‘See it carried out’, an order backed by the full weight of institutional power and not allowing for any negotiation of the relationship between speaker and hearer. ‘See it carried out’ is an order which creates a subordinate, by not only issuing a command but holding the hearer responsible for implementing it exactly. ‘Eat the last bit’ carries a similar imperative force, but seems to belong to a more personalised context, as of an adult to a child again: a cheeky or lippy child moreover who may already have spilt the dish, shown dissent or refusal in order to be addressed in this way, making the command itself a reactive assertion of power under challenge, and the homely, familiar scene to which the command belongs almost an anticipation of a time when the child’s power to refuse will be greater than the adult’s power to compel: the implacable shadow looming over the word ‘last’, as the adult momentarily experiences a kind of obverse Oedipal anxiety about being replaced by the child: something touching on the desire in the epigraph to hold everything in steady-state. In the context of its stanza,

Leaf-leaf and sister speaks, we pick
any song up. Eat the last bit
you left over, you did. On the table
damage mounts. The tale starts
again and strikes. Any best week
is lost like that, we admit, life
long too much to stand. Too much
to find is so, this time round.

— ‘Eat the last bit’ may belong as much to sibling anxieties as to adult ones; the ‘sister speaks’ to her younger brother by adopting and imitating the accents of authority, and setting off a tit for tat squabble, ‘you did’, whose probable consequences, both immediate and long-term, draw from the watching adult the ruefully laconic ‘damage mounts’. The stanza does seem to convey a sense somewhere between acceptance and end-of-the-tether exasperation (‘lost like that’, ‘too much’, ‘too much’) that this particular ‘song’ should be so eagerly picked up and reproduced, and that as a result ‘the tale starts/again’. Another tone could acknowledge the eagerness of youth while holding it back and making it wait — the tone for instance of mockingly ironic complicity in a phrase like ‘as you say’, a nod in your direction which seems to attribute to you an authoritative insider’s position which you suspect you do not actually occupy, playing with your sense of trust in the favoured manner of torturers everywhere. Phrases like this and, say, ‘it can be cold if you do’, phrases which intimidate with the difference between their foreknowledge and your lack of it, allow a glimpse of what it would be like to stand on their ground at the same time as they exclude you from it; fanning the ambition to cross over while controlling the means of access. Of course, the classic interrogators’ unsettling tactic was always to have two voices, one opening a prospect and the other closing it off, and in this poem the counter-tone, the tone of brusque dismissiveness in phrases like ‘We know that’ and ‘Yes it is’ drops like a guillotine across any neck that dares stretch itself.

     Except that a tone of uncompromising impatience and scorn could emanate equally well from below as from above, from the continuous presence through the poem of the expulsive, aggressive drives which set one part of it going, the destructive energy of the body which authority struggles to control: especially in the third stanza, ‘Reason’, where a series of sententious pronouncements are interrupted or sarcastically spurned — ‘Look out’, ‘we know that’, ‘like as not’. Prynne makes frequent use of effects like this, a kind of jeering assault on rhetoric and its comforts. But there is another challenge to be met here, since of course a phrase like ‘we know that’ does not have to be spoken harshly; it could also belong to compliant children, keen to please their master and celebrate a moment of security and confidence in the midst of so much difficulty. If two separate tones contend for possession of the phrase, one calls back into the poem the search for a shared ground, the element of naive trusting which the other one expels; one talks of something successfully learnt while the other denies there is anything to learn.

    The patronising of the naive by those in the know seems a clear motif in the sixth stanza:


It can be cold if you do, to
give way, open your eye.
The shelf is under what you
put there, the help is part
of the store. See it carried out
as we like no less. We are told
this. He gives a hand and falls
exactly, and before he must.

Altruism, support, self-sacrifice, of the kind that sprang up rather startlingly in the third stanza — ‘I give my life for that’ — are viewed with a prevailing cynicism. The first two lines offer caustic advice to anyone thinking of conceding ground or putting himself second, while ‘the help is part of the store’ sounds like a supermarket slogan, designed to impress the customer with a readiness to assist which has in fact been already computed and included in the bill. Again, the space closes in on any unscheduled moves to ‘help’, or other activities undertaken freely and without a pre-calculated return, and anyone who tries them — as in ‘he gives a hand’ — is condemned to fall, ‘exactly’: as one would say, ‘I told you so’. The sternest injunction, ‘see it carried out as we like no less’, is flanked by the consequences of disobedience, since to fall is, among other things (and I would want to find time to wonder how much of its paradisial burden is being carried here), to lose the balance and uprightness necessary to measure the world and find yourself a place in it, whether the place be of your own making or already mapped out for you.

     That question becomes increasingly urgent, as the words ‘exactly’ and ‘no less’ belong to a series of measuring instructions, used this time not by the uninitiated but by the system itself, in order to manoeuvre its subjects into precisely specified positions — ‘not enough’, ‘more’, ‘too far’, ‘so far’, ‘no less’, ‘exactly’, ‘too much’, ‘no more’. These words and phrases act as intermittent checking or warning devices through the poem, implicit reminders of the dangers of stepping over the prescribed boundaries or pursuing directions that have not already been accounted for. ‘You must not fall over’, we are told in stanza 4, ‘the top is marked with a nib’: as if you were provided, as in a self-assembly furniture kit, with one designated bearing-point by means of which verticals and horizontals can be distinguished, balance maintained and the ‘fall’ avoided; but at the same time the ‘top’ is already ‘marked’, the limit allowed to your aspirations, or your mental and emotional reach beyond this level of minimal survival, so ‘the step on top’ of the first stanza is again one step short of vertigo and disaster. One particularly abrupt capping of the vertical comes at ‘Under the roof is/over the floor’, brought up short by the semi-colon. As the line turns the corner of the verse, the eyes are first raised upwards and forwards and then cast downwards and back, as if to check the safety of the ground they had considered leaving. ‘Under the roof is ...’ beckons the reader towards a whispered secret, a little overlooked space at the margins where something precious might be hidden or smuggled in; but ‘over the floor’ instantly crushes this momentary imaginative freedom with a sarcastic, utilitarian literalism about spatial definitions, implying how thoroughly all possible spaces have already been searched and scoured. If there is nowhere to hide, no special territory safe from invasion, the lines and phrases surrounding this one may take on increasingly sinister resonances — Anne Frank and the jackboot, if we want to see the scales of power at their steepest angle. As we stare into the unmeasurable space suspended inside this line, the ground seems to squeeze up beneath us like a piston head rising in its cylinder, but without ever quite completing the stroke; our eyes are made to flicker between the two bounding surfaces, and the distance from floor to roof suddenly widens or shrinks almost to nothing.

    There are also hints of an altogether less anxious form of demarcating and protecting territory, through household DIY, painting and decorating: hints in words and phrases such as ‘in from the grain’, ‘white strip’, ‘shelf’, ‘shading the coat’. The continuous cross-current between the domestic world and its wider horizons includes traces of a parental concern with security and repair, with providing for the future (‘the store’), and with establishing a carefully supportive surround for the child in its heedlessness (‘You must not fall over’). [Note 3]

     The fifth stanza, FILL, seems to involve predominantly transverse movements and an open outdoor area to roam in. Its central line, ‘So far, after the dear one’, tells of a weary quest for a lost object of desire in whose wake one endlessly trudges. The very weariness appears to increase the danger of a mistake in ‘quick to/meet the door and pass him’, as if the chance of finding him might be missed through an excessive anxiety to seize an apparent opening or converge upon an apparent reference-point. This line indeed seems to draw attention to a more conventional order for its words by inverting it: we might have expected ‘pass the door and meet him’, as if in this corner of the poem the chance of human contact (or divine contact, if the door is heaven’s gate, or the passage to judgement for the ‘quick’ and the dead), were to be associated with images of crossing movement — pass, after, going on by — along the horizontal extensions which are marked off and defined by vertical fixtures, like ‘the door’ (as distinct from the flanking stanzas 4 and 6, where the specified fixture is ‘the shelf’, a horizontal marking off vertical extensions). ‘Chance’ itself goes ‘across’ in the lines immediately preceding these. The fifth stanza overall seems to convey a sense of disappointment or recrimination at having stopped when one might have continued, or for a planned schedule’s having broken down, and the antagonism between chance and schedule is reinforced by the way these open-ended transversals run against the grain of the circularity or symmetrical framing which organises much of the poem — framing which even here exerts itself against all that is invested in ‘the dear one’, the precious figure who opens up what room there is for emotional quickening. The structure of symmetrical inversion, which sees for example ‘by one’ in the stanza’s second line answered with ‘one going on by’ in the last, seems to introduce a multiple succession of ‘ones’ to confuse or undermine the uniqueness of any one of them — pointing backwards to ‘this one’ in the opening stanza and forwards to ‘the same one’ at the end of the poem. The moment of romantic desire seems more than ever exposed, the lover’s dream of ‘one to one’ as an exchange of trust and honesty from which all defences have been stripped; a dream fighting to protect itself not only from the grey monotony of disillusionment that swirls round it, but from the vocabulary of sentimental lingering from which it seems almost impossible to disengage: ‘true’, ‘dear’, ‘hurt’, ‘lost’, ‘ache’, ‘wish’, ‘pale’, ‘melt’. And at the same time, the impulses to altruism, to self-sacrifice, struggling to emerge through a language that discounts them, belong with the tiny glimpses we are given of Saint Martin’s own story in these two stanzas: ‘thread’, which becomes CLOTH, and eventually ‘coat’, in transition from raw material to tailored item; the intimations of dividing and sharing at ‘one to one’, ‘give way’, ‘part’, and of the language of miracles at ‘not/lame, not hurt’; a trace of charity woven almost imperceptibly into a condition of computational paranoia and cynical self-protectiveness.

     Christian advice was always to ‘wait/for one to one’: now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face. The closing lines of the second stanza may be chewing this over:

Even the sky
is hard to see but leave, and see
and follow, and leave but see as well.

These offer various options for measuring out their sense-bearing units. ‘Even the sky/is hard to see’ talks quite conversationally of the problems of exploring a land of permanent twilight, while the rest of the sentence seems nonetheless to urge the exploration forward into a continual cycle of departures and becomings. A different combination, ‘hard to see but leave’, could raise questions for those who ‘stay on’ rather than those ‘going on’, questions about how hard it is to be conscious of something without interfering with it — or, in the inverted form, ‘leave but see’, how hard it is to relinquish something while keeping it in view. Maybe these lines really are acting out in microcosm the expulsion from Paradise, in the sequence of perception, temptation, knowledge and departure; an expulsion treated elsewhere in its secular forms. Meanwhile, the whole world of the temporal order, everything that is lodged in the verb ‘follow’ — parent-child relations, inheritance, genetic programme, discipleship, coercion, free wandering, loss — is held in poise between the two inverted phrases, ‘see but leave’, ‘leave but see’, with their apocalyptic promise of an ultimate return: producing for me at least an extraordinary miniaturised simulacrum of the human condition which somehow manages to sound both trivial and endlessly, recessively deep. If, through offering unscheduled ‘help’, interposing his will and stepping out of line in order to give a hand, he ‘falls ... before he must’, then a divine plan for the temporal order is disrupted by a fundamental human impulse; but by the final stanza the necessary adjustment seems to have been made, at ‘willing, without end’: the Christian eternity now appears to be actually constituted by the dialectic of rebelliousness and compliance within the two senses of ‘willing’, exercising the will or patiently co-operative, drawing everything in to one or other of its categories until ‘nothing else showed at all’. There is a deflating finality about this last stanza, a sense that all potential has been headed off and deflected back into a single, irreversible channel: as if an induction programme had succeeded in its task and is now terminated, ‘at this point step off’ — answering the initial command of the first stanza, ‘step on’, which we can now see to have been slipped in almost unnoticed amid the swirl of meaning.

    ‘You want to give your word’. A yearning for trust seems nonetheless to persist, and at ‘he tried to hold, up and down’, it develops into a last-ditch defence of the integrity of the bodily-tied marker words and the identity which they had established, trying to save them, perhaps, from a general ‘melt’: but these bearings have already become increasingly unreliable, absorbed into other grammatical forms and idioms — ‘left over’, ‘seems right’, ‘slows down’. We seem to be left peering into these fully socialised usages as if at a palimpsest showing faint traces of how language appeared at an earlier stage of receptiveness. What I would like to end by saying is that in reading Prynne’s re-imaginings of these cusp-moments, going back as far as one can in linguistic and psychic development, one tends to find the same basic conditions of existence recurring: forms of shelter or exposure, clothing and skin; interior reference co-ordinates, doors, walls, tables, around which the domestic day is organised; a single strong emotional attachment; light, shade, sustenance, first things. In the last section of Not-You, for instance:

In this room by the dear one, by too clear
for life inside the door, make the wall
go mutely close. Sold down, must upon

the tag rising, slanting, will it not be
near the table there. Ever to call nothing
quiet, attentive to know where shade

takes room for this, for that. So full
of open sets why not say, leave the side
to suit no less either than just bearing.

It strikes me that as much as anything else the world evoked here is the world of ration books, even of air-raid shelters: prudence, exact quantities, risk assessment, the optimum use of small resources, even a kind of commodification and parcelling-out of one’s emotions — the world of evacuee children, forced to negotiate relationships with strange new environments and parent-surrogates; a world in which an imposed utopian contentment of everyone’s being treated the same is unsettled both by spasmodic inner eruptions and by the threat of imminent disaster from which it all emerged. Is that the voice of the nineteen-forties, whose echoes survived forward into my own suburban cold-war childhood, that I can hear — not only asking ‘went the day well?’ underneath ‘was the day wet’, but in what I earlier called the sententious pronouncements of stanza 3: ‘this may break what will not mend’, or ‘if not so it will not do’?

— N H Reeve
   November 1997


[1]    Kevin Nolan suggested that since things are ‘changed utterly’ ‘wherever green is worn’, there may be an Irish connotation to add to the list.

[2]    These reflexes, and the initial concern with spillage, may of course be associated more generally with the interest, in other Prynne poems of the 1970s, in immunology, toxins, and the body’s reactions to alien substances.

[3]    Ian Patterson made a number of very interesting suggestions along these lines.

Jacket 24 — November 2003  Contents page
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