Sunday, July 3, 2016
wide the arms
Two lines in Mary Oliver that bother me particularly are “when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse | to buy me, and snaps the purse shut,” from When Death Comes, which I found in the New Poems 1991-1992 section of her New and Selected Poems: Volume One, 1992. The second line does not need to exist because the act of purchasing is already implied by the removal of the coins from the purse, and the notion that dying can be represented by the textual description of an open object such as door, coffin, or tomb being closed, has been used so often that by now it is contained inside the word “death” as a matter of course. When Geoffrey Hill uses ‘signal’ twice, close together, in Holbein, 2007, the second usage both echoes the first and also expands it beyond the figure who is “spreading | wide the arms as a signal.” That figure takes on an additional identity: he is dissolved into motions that are universal to the point of being inhuman. The scene is an execution; he is also being removed by the language. A certain power of choice has been abstracted from his behaviour and he is communised. The words “In fact it’s” in the lines “In fact it’s all | signals” are the language of someone who is making an assertion that may be baseless: “in fact” is what can be used in place of an explanation and the contracted “it’s” suggests that this is being said quickly, perhaps even carelessly or with a sudden, unstudied ease, enlightenment, or despair. So this “In fact” is the poet signalling a flavour of possible insincerity, surprise, or laziness in the voice that is not or not quite his.
The voice has also been produced in isolation from any suggestion of human flesh, which differentiates it from the crowd-voice that Dickens mimics or echoes (& plucks up & drops) in Epsom. Everyone that Dickens ever heard speak, you say, is dead. When Oliver Lawson Dick edited John Aubrey for a 1949 edition of Brief Lives he rearranged the details of Edward Herbert’s entry chronologically so that Herbert’s death was positioned at the end of the section, and the description of his home, Castle Montgomery, near the beginning. When an edition is not so reshaped then the castle is at the end of the entry, not participating in the movement of narrative through Herbert’s life, leaving the reader to make out of it whatever they can, and the entry begins with the man almost dead: start: dying. Aubrey repeats gossip, as everyone points out.