Thinking on the theme of Our Poetry and Our Needs, a challenging comment on the motivations behind making art came back to mind. At the end of his 1978 ‘Autoritratto’ (Self-Portrait), Vittorio Sereni recalls an extremely heterogeneous exhibition called La ricerca dell’identià (The Search for Identity) held in Milan during 1974. This phrase, he says, ‘isn’t a definition of the fact that signs are put on canvas or words on paper, but certainly a motivation or, frankly, an exculpation for works of this kind: expressing, precisely, the search for identity. One’s own naturally, and others’ or rather others’ with respect to one’s own, and vice versa.’ That concession lets a lot of air into the notional implication of the exhibition title, suggesting that poems might be written in search of others’ identities, and that, most tellingly, nothing and no one has an identity in a vacuum, that identities are relational and reciprocal. From this access of dialogue, relationship, and social recognitions into the identification of art with an identity-search, Sereni brings his brief self-portrait to a resoundingly Petrarchan close:
This search, at least in my case, cannot yield other than sporadic recognitions, that is, partial and transitory identifications — and self-identifications; it is a hunt that doesn’t presuppose a final, comprehensive prey. It lives, if it lives, on a contradiction from which filters, on and off, a primary (call it deluded, call it unfulfilled, call it unrequited) love of life.
It follows, then, that if our poetry is to answer to our needs, it will have to answer to those of others, and whoever is indicated by ‘our’ and whatever by ‘poetry’ in the theme’s title, it will be similarly dependent upon others’ ideas of themselves and what they write. To think of our relationship with life and the world as that of an unfailingly loyal but unrequited lover starts a host of thoughts about how we might better cherish what, if anything, we have tended to ravish and violate. It should not surprise us, either, given how we have behaved, that life and the world might, Laura-like, have nothing to do with us. My three poems each seem about attempting to express relationship, and the need to sustain relationship, even when the circumstances — be they time, distance, interpersonal dynamics, politics or geography — threaten to weaken or break such connections. The very position of lyric poetry, isolated on the page, needing to be brought to life by a voice, and only meaningful when responded to by a reader or listener, underlines the risks in coming into relationship, and, with luck, answers to those risks with its homeopathic forms of identity-achieving releases.
‘Chicago cradles it
in ice-green glitter’
— Roy Fisher
Paused by that vast ice-green glitter, you sense
at a Lakeside Drive’s eight-lane-wide crossing,
economies of scale down by Lake Michigan —
a high-rise Pandemonium, cradled on the night.
Ah, but in broad daylight
and inside The Loop,
these poets’ conversations
are quieting their wives …
and like those pretty rooms at the Art Institute
or paired Souza bands marched in opposite
directions, both playing their different tunes,
that’s how it went, the Union music of our lives.
Sleeve of Europe
‘… heart worn
on the sleeve of Europe …’
— Peter Sirr
Back when we drove that coast from Calais
following names on road signs
for Dunkerque and Nieuwpoort, past Gravelines,
at last I could see how the land lay
over fields where avant-garde troops, refugees,
they would be dead in a ditch, come what may,
and was pondering on our shared histories,
ones not to surrender or betray …
and travelling northward along the frayed cuff
of La Manche, when only a portable phone
told us we’d crossed into Belgium,
I couldn’t stop marvelling on such freedom —
a freedom so grievous, so hard-won
in the dunes and surf.
It’s years ago we drove the sleeve of Europe
towards Zandvoort and Bergen-aan-Zee
not foreseeing how some would bring it to a stop,
which is what has driven me back this same way
now, at the end of our tether,
we’re all left wondering what would be enough
said to bring country and countries together
in aid of future memory, come, come now, love.
for John & Christine
‘No longer … to yearn for anything more’
was one of my mad ideas
where a newborn family slept
on your fresh-smelling, tatami floor.
Smoke plumes hung above the whole area.
Odours of death remained on the air
in that place devastated only weeks before
by the Great Hanshin Earthquake’s fires.
Now like a pair of shocked revenants, here
we tiptoe through the undergrowth and stare
at where our newborn family slept,
that downstairs guestroom repurposed too
as a College furniture store —
piled chairs and school-desks left behind
on its tatami floor.
Then through the air come blossom scents.
As if my idea were to accept
repurpose everywhere, we hear
how les jeunes filles en fleur would laugh,
pose, take a selfie-photograph
in the Garden of the Bard
which still has rue, still rosemary,
after all these years.