Thursday 7 February 2013


"And their scattering has an air
of deliberate ritual, ancient and necessary.
Their great size, too, makes them the very
embodiment of grief, while the play of their trunks
lends sprezzatura." (from the poem 'A Scattering', p.38)
(meaning a studied carelessness, especially as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature) Is that not the most wonderful sounding word... and a quality that I love when reading. 

I ordered A Scattering by Christopher Reid the other day, second hand from Amazon, but am counting it as being from the TBR pile since it has been on the unwritten list in my head since it won the Costa Prize several years ago. It was reading Joyce Carol Oates's book 'A Widow's Story' that sparked the memory of this poetry collection because it is also a book that reflects on mourning the loss of a spouse. Partly I admit I was curious to read if men and women experience grief differently; the thing that struck me hardest is that we don't. This piece comes from the final section called 'Lucinda's Way':

"Genius of growth and overgrowth, you planned this small
London back plot
to be where a gardener, a lone Eve, could lose herself utterly.
When I came out to call you in to supper,
or to the pestering telephone,
often you seemed to have vanished until I spotted you
bent over or squatting in the midst of some urgent green handiwork.
Lost to sight for a different reason, you're still to be found there
if I look carefully." (p.60)

and it struck me how similar it was to a thought Joyce expressed when trying to tackle the overgrown and neglected garden that had been her husband's domain, that she could imagine he was working somewhere there, companionably with her, if only she were to turn round and look. And again, they both take solace in the occasional forgetting, a feeling that the person is still there that provides some small comfort: from 'Late'
"Of course I'd forgotten that she'd died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress,
I felt the mattress and bed boards
welcome her weight
as she rolled and settled towards me,
but, before I caught her,
it was already too late
and she'd wisped clean away." (p420

The difference in their stories is that Joyce was taken unawares, with no chance to prepare or say goodbye, where Reid suffers along with his wife through her illness and progress towards inevitable death. 

The first section recounts a holiday in Crete, remembering a precious time together. I loved several part of this section, particularly the contrast between himself as a bumbling tourist, and his wife as an intrepid explorer:
"Is there anything more absurd
than the Englishman abroad,
with his panama hat and his hay-fever
firing off left, right and centre,
and his scraps of misremembered Classical Greek
But is there anything more sublime
than the Englishman's wife,
who is willing to climb
the rockiest, thorniest slope
with abundant hope 
in her heart, and an illustrated
Flowers of Crete in her hand,
While he perspires
under that dapper
but ineffectual brim,
and sneezes loudly, and sneezes loudly again,
the Englishman admires
his intrepid wife
and , somewhere in his brain,
begins to compose
a snatch of holiday doggerel:
his humble, private hummable rap-rhapsody or hymn." (p14) 

And then thinking back to the walk from the beach, I found this so evocative of childhood seaside holidays, but it is the last line speaks volumes:

"All but overgrown,
the twist and tilt
of that path above the bay
permitted a wading,
occasionally snagged or stumbling,
single-file progress of two - 
in which, more often than not,
I followed you." (p.19)

The second section records, unstintingly, her illness and death; the bedside vigil, the attempts to pass the time, the frightening realities of it's effects. But where Joyce gave an incarnation to the fear of suicide and thus allowed it to stalk her, he rationalises the threat, an attempt to reduce it's power over them:

"No imp or devil
but a mere tumour
squatted on her brain.
Without personality
or ill humour,
malignant but not malign,
it set about doing - 
not evil,
simply the job
tumours have always done:
establishing faulty
connections, skewing
perceptions, closing down
faculties and functions
one by one.

Hobgobin, nor foul fiend;
nor even the jobs worth slob
with a slow sly scheme to rob
my darling of her mind
that I imagined;
just a tumour." (p27)

As he tracks her decline the words become more poignant, the fact that her true self, though often confused, remained there:

"Food and friends,
treats and surprises:
all that she deemed necessary
assumed the tragi-
comic form
of Chekhovian picnics
at our end of the ward,
which she directed, or conducted,
with frail, airy
emphases and flourishes
of her right arm - 
the one limb so far spared." (p.30)

The third part, 'Widower's Dozen' is 13 poems, looking at all the different ways she is constantly brought to mind, the things he missed about her and venting anger at the world. He laments the weight of his soul, asks the purpose of tears and in the market he comes to "sneak a taste" of the "feminine element/his life has lacked for too long." The one from this section I identified with most is 'About the House', because it speaks of the private intimacy of relationships, the little things that have passed between you, things that you own, everything you have shared, add up to what is lost:

"The fragments of rusted, possibly agricultural metal
that she found when digging and that became
Mother and Child, without the Child;

the elongated Wapping-mudlarked flint
that, from its tilt when stood on end, got called
Russian Peasant Woman Walking through a Snowstorm -

these and suchlike trouvailles-turned-knickknacks
keep their place about the house, though symbolically inert now,
their only function to be a bother to the cleaner with her duster.

Nevertheless, they will stay there until a decision has been announced
by the Senior Curator, Department of Private Jokes." (p.46)

The final part is more a eulogy for Lucinda, a celebration of the woman, someone who lived life with gusto, I would have liked her:

"Did anyone ever match your appetite
for plans and projects,
for doing two or three things at the same time?
You watched bad television, had me massage your neck, and sewed
lavishly beautiful patchwork quilts.
Two or three things at the same time.
Can't you now somehow contrive
to be both dead and alive?" (p.53-4)
"RADA accepted you. You attended classes. Made friends.
Splurged on adventurous recipes for dinner parties
but, totting up the pennies in the ruled back pages of a pocket diary,
survived the rest of the week
on cashew nuts and packet soup." (p.55)
"Controlled, melodious, your voice rises up
from you through your character
and reaches into the large listening darkness,
where I sit and hear again
the lines I helped you to learn." (p.56)
"You're wearing home-made
Turkish trousers,
one of your fearless
unfashion statements;
shirt loose as a tunic;
wild hair bunched
in an ikat bandanna,
for extra buccaneer effect." (p.59)
"When we sold the flat we had lived in for - amazingly - seventeen years,
you visited our few, small rooms in turn
and out loud said goodbye to the empty spaces." (p.61)
(and rather beautifully, and like Joyce, hopefully, finishing)
"While the innumerable air kisses
we exchanged in passing
remain suspended to this day,
each one an efficacious blessing." (p.62)

1 comment:

  1. Just popped in to say hello and I realise it has been about 6 weeks since I was here. I missed your Blogiversary! My trouble with reading applies to other people's blogs as well. But here is hoping!


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