• Steven Matthews

Laths: narrow strips of wood, which might form groundwork upon which slates, tiles, or plaster can be attached to make roofs or walls, particularly in beamed Tudor buildings. Can be a verb, ‘to lath’. Sometimes, also, the pliable wood used to make bows and cross-bows, like the thin branches we strung to fire our stick-arrows as children. Also, a flimsiness: the OED records that, for Ruskin, ‘laths’ could stand for what is not properly founded, an inadequate partition if not properly covered over. Something that might be peaked through, that breezes might blow through, that sounds would pass through.

 

Of course, one ‘need’ that poetry necessarily seeks to fulfil is the reaching-out or carrying-across of translation, or the passing from one state and situation to others. The work of translation here, reworking familiar French poetry, sparked these poems about moving through and across. The framing-versions from Bonnefoy for this mini-sequence are derived from two poems that appear side-by-side in his 1958 collection Hier régnant Desert — ‘Le Pays Découvert’ and ‘Delphes du Second Jour’. I’ve always found this the strongest of Bonnefoy’s works in its gulfs, voices, sudden blazings, and reprises. I liked the idea of interleaving, as it were, several other poems between two pages of his book.

 

To create versions of these poems, however, presented a challenge in terms of syntax and line-breaks; to reproduce Bonnefoy’s original lineation in these two poems about opening up to the vicarious possibilities of place seemed to create awkwardness, not revelation. Better to adopt new lines for each phrase. That framing decision with regard to the Bonnefoy then speaks to the fluidities of syntax and lineation in the other poems here, about other fragile, uncertain, vulnerable, barely-glimpsed or -grasped possibilities.

 

In my books of poems, Skying, and On Magnetism, there are brief sets of poems which act as kinds of snapshot, short photographic images almost, that arrive and are taken away. These new poems in ‘Laths’ are attempts to make something slightly more sustained on those lines, but at the same time something written with light, something that dances a bit on the page, shifting direction rapidly. The poems have a core, hopefully form a core, of linked analogy seen from different angles, different aspects of experience.

 

 

 

A Country Revealed

(after Bonnefoy)

 

A star on the threshold;

wind, gripped

in still hands.

 

Words and wind

tussled for ages,

then wind-quiet

fell with a shock.

 

The country discovered

was merely grey stone:

a way off and far below,

the light from void

streams was laid out.

 

Night-rains shocked

the earth, unveiled

that fire you call time.

 

*

 

the quick feints

and sharp skirmishes

of a ghost lemur

skittering the canopy,

fleeting through;

 

in a flurry of sunlight

across the city street,

the back of that head,

that swift jittering stride —

as though his

 

*

 

carillioning

birdnotes startle

the air, the pent,

of their attic room,

 

as light depicts

skin with sheens —

her arm, back,

breast-side,

 

his chest, groin,

sprawled knees —

blackbirds, sparrows,

generous ring-necked doves 

 

*

 

raddle of sunlight

washes across

groups statuing

the shore

(mount of black clouds

beyond its reach),

 

sounds shredded

between them as they lean

into the wind,

fostered

in what

they strain to hear

 

before it is lost

to them,

that day

of two rainbows

 

*

 

are the handprints

on granite,

ash, ochre,

reddle, dust,

by those

pressing from

cave side in,

 

or those from

inside the rock

yearning out

 

 

 

 

 

Delphi on the Second Day

(after Bonnefoy)

 

Here the troubled voice

consents to love

simple stone,

flagstones time has

enslaved and freed,

the olive-tree, whose strength

is the tang of dry stone.

 

A footstep in a true place:

the fraught voice

now happy beneath silent

rock-slopes, and the infinite,

indefinite answer

from small bells, the shore,

or death. Delphi,

on that second day,

your cloudless valley

struck no terror.