Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Edward Thomas's Daughter

Here's one of the poems included in this week's Daily Poem Project, by Alison Brackenbury:

Edward Thomas's daughter

Now winter prowls upon the hills
I write to her, her head so old
The war before the last war fills
Her mind. She lists her father's songs.

A man, I tell her, I admire:
Who steps as close as a lost child.
They sang, she tells me, by the fire
Wild Army songs before he died.

My fingertips once touched that world.
I saw it linger, washing boil,
The fire chill as long ashes curled.
Will Russia's gas put out our lights?

The robin brushes me at dusk.
Our good bones fail. We leave no mark.
His voice, she writes, was clear and quiet.
I hear him singing in the dark.

This is a beautiful and evocative poem, merging so many different levels and images, from the poet's reading of another poet to her encounter with that other poet's daughter, and several other layers as well ("Russia's gas" being perhaps the most startling).

But the syntax of the poem conflicts too much with the lineation for me, without generating any gain to make up for it. In the first stanza, I wonder if a single comma at the end of the first line might help me read the lines better:

Now winter prowls upon the hills,
I write to her, her head so old
The war before the last war fills
Her mind. She lists her father's songs.

Just that additional comma makes it much easier to read the line breaks at the end of lines two and three, but without that comma, I stumble at the end of line one, and then as a result I stumble at the ends of the next two lines as well.

This is another example of a problem I have commented on before, the omission of a comma at the end of a line.


Alison said...

Just to say I think you're quite right about the comma! I have endless trouble with these. If I use too many, I find editors reject the whole poem. They seem to regard light punctuation as more of a challenge,add the odd comma and publish.

It's always hard to see the obscurities in your own work. I tend, for example, to give strong emphasis to line endings when reading, so feel less need for commas than many readers obviously do.

Thank you for a helpful comment. I am glad you liked the poem generally.

Very best wishes,

Alison Brackenbury

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for your comment on my comment on your poem, Alison. Did you see that "Edward Thomas's Daughter" was the winner of week 1 of my Fourth Daily Poem Project?

Alison said...

Yes. I was very pleased. I'm a regular reader of Poetry Daily. I think I'd find it quite hard some weeks to pick my favourite. The site's introduced me to some excellent American poets.

I keep suggesting publicly that a British version would also be very popular, but have not yet managed to raise any interest from anyone with sufficient influence or funding!

Very best wishes,


DaveG said...

we are not the first people in history to have problems with commas.

Oscar Wilde said:

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.
In the afternoon I put it back again.

Dave G

Andrew Shields said...

Oscar Wilde? I've always heard that attributed to Gustave Flaubert!

amphibrach said...

I'd been reading the poem and am fixed completely by washing boil, and Russia's gas. is this a medical boil? Or the washing boil, whatever that means, of "that world"? and the Russia gas ref, is this about mustard gas? Or some bizarre allusion to energy supplies in the modern world? I find it strange that this short poem can contain such apparently impenetrable obscurity

Andrew Shields said...

I read it as "I saw ... washing boil" – with "washing" meaning "laundry".

As for "Russia's gas", I think I must have read it as World War One gas back then, but that doesn't really make sense, since Britain and Russia were on the same side in the war!

Unknown said...

I read the “Russia’s gas” reference to be a Cold War or post-Cold-War perspective: either fear of the “Evil Empire” or anxiety over economic competition in the energy economy. It snaps the reader back out of the historical time frame. I have to say that this poem has some eerie coincidental relevance right now.