Plumbing metaphysics

THE-CONVERSION-OF-AN-OLD-FASHIONED-SCULLERY-TO-A-BATHROOM-1-CP0362

Heath Robinson (Via https://www.chrisbeetles.com/ )

‘Above all’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘the French recognize that love is a form of metaphysical enquiry. The English imagine it has something to do with the plumbing.’[1]

Durrell was centrally concerned with love—and with France and the French—while I, though always also concerned with love, have lately had plumbing forced peremptorily on my attention. Such things as angle seat wrenches, drain seal gaskets, flue baffles, flush balls, tailpieces, ball valves and stopcocks, are all mysterious to me. Sometimes I seem to know what I’m looking at but the familiarity is elusive and recedes as I approach. I see a faint parallel with our visit the other day to the marvellous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.[2]

Anglo-Saxon-K

Apart from a lot of contextual information in different media, the main focus is on surviving artefacts: jewellery, weaponry, utensils but, above all, texts (its Latin root, ‘weaving’ very visible): exquisitely beautiful decorated manuscript pages of gospels, psalters, charters, letters, herbals, treatises, glossaries, of Boethius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Alfred’s translations. All these in a profusion of languages: particularly Old English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew; and runic as well as Roman alphabets; but mention is also made along the way of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots-Gaelic. Some of these pages arouse a strange sensation as if seeing something through bodies of water, a flickering instability, outlines familiar enough to have you straining to make out details which – once made out – only baffle or disorientate again.

Apart from the installation of a new radiator, the other plumbing issue of past days manifested itself in a wet sock. Walking from the kitchen to the stairs, I felt a wetness underfoot. We currently own no pets. ‘The floor’s wet at the bottom of the stairs’, I remarked. ‘Oh no’, the Librarian replied, with the audible sense of impending doom that I thought I’d reserved to myself. Above my head, the ceiling was stained and seemed to bulge a little. Just the light, or lack of it, I thought, as drops landed on my upturned face. British Gas, bless them, run a 24-hour service. I called, around seven that morning, was advised to turn off the water at the mains (post-showers, post-filling jugs and saucepans) and an engineer was with me by half-past nine.

As it happened, I’d been reading Sarah Perry’s first – and very distinctive – novel, After Me Comes the Flood, its unsettling nature signalled at the outset by that ambiguous ‘after’, both in the sense of temporal sequence and in that of pursuit. ‘Après nous le déluge’, Madame de Pompadour, influential mistress and confidante of Louis XV, apparently said, Louis himself being the alleged author of the alternative, more regal version (‘après moi’). James Joyce’s limerick for his friend Eugene Jolas concluded: ‘Après mot, le déluge.’[3] Revolution of the word, indeed.

Pompadour
(François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Reminded by all this of Charles Tomlinson’s 1981 collection, The Flood, I glance down the list of contents in his New Collected Poems and notice just how many of those poems concern – or connect to – water. The title poem begins:

It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone. Perfectly reconciled it lay
Together with water – and does so still –
In the hill-top conduits that feed into
Cisterns of stone, cisterns echoing
With a married murmur, as either finds
Its own true note in such a unison.
It rained for thirty days. Down chimneys
And through doors, the house filled up
With the roar of waters. The trees were bare,
With nothing to keep in the threat
And music of that climbing, chiming din
Now rivers ran where the streams once were.[4]

‘The Flood’ is placed near the end of the volume, followed only by ‘Severnside’, ‘In the Estuary’ and ‘The Epilogue’ – ‘a fugue of water/ Startled the ear and air with distances/ Around and under us, as if a flood/ Came pouring in from every quarter’. ‘The Flood’ is preceded by ‘The Littleton Whale’, written in memory of Charles Olson and unsurprisingly including canal, river, sea, wave, mariner, tide, sloop ­ and whale. Before that, ‘Barque Nomen’ (‘tides reshape the terrain’), ‘Instead of an Essay’, written for Donald Davie (‘bay’, ‘coast’, ‘island’, ‘sea’, ‘stream’, ‘tide’) and ‘On a May Night’ (after the prose of Leopardi’s journal), a coachman’s daughter ‘washing a platter’ and predicting rain, which falls towards the end of the poem – so I stop there to remark that, quite apart from the mastery displayed in the individual poems, Tomlinson, like Yeats and like Pound (his recent biographer, David Moody, pays this aspect of Pound’s work a good deal of attention), was an accomplished architect of volumes, a builder of books.

Swimming-Chenango-Lake

David Morley’s new selection of Charles Tomlinson’s poems is called Swimming Chenango Lake (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and opens with the poem that gives the volume its title (the same poem opened The Way of a World, published in 1969).

Winter will bar the swimmer soon.
He reads the water’s autumnal hesitations
A wealth of ways: it is jarred,
It is astir already despite its steadiness,
Where the first leaves at the first
Tremor of the morning air have dropped
Anticipating him,
launching their imprints
Outwards in eccentric, overlapping circles.

Tomlinson’s next volume was entitled Written on Water (1972). It begins, reasonably enough, with a poem called ‘On Water’.

‘On’, not ‘in’. ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ was the sentence that John Keats asked Joseph Severn to have inscribed on his gravestone. ‘On’, two letters, carries at least two meanings. Alluding to the familiar notion of ships’ keels ploughing the waves, the poem suggests rather that:

‘Furrow’ is inexact:
no ship could be
converted to a plough
travelling this vitreous ebony:

seal it in sea-caves and
you cannot still it:
image on image bends
where half-lights fill it

with illegible depths
and lucid passages,
bestiary of stones,
book without pages:

and yet it confers
as much as it denies:
we are orphaned and fathered
by such solid vacancies:

I hear again the quiet eloquence of that colon (Pound’s Canto 1 ends ‘So that:’ and Canto 17 seems to continue this by beginning ‘So that the vines burst from my fingers’) and, come to think of it, the others in this short poem, functioning as more than line-endings. Incitements to thought, perhaps. Two exact rhymes, then two sight-rhymes (‘passages’/’pages’, ‘denies’, ‘vacancies’) and, again, the dialogue of stone and water. And other dialogues: ‘confers’ and ‘denies’, ‘orphaned’ and ‘fathered’ – finally, that ‘solid vacancies’, wonderful.

 
References

[1] ‘Letting the Book Breathe by Itself’, quoted by Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 508.

[2] The catalogue is as impressive as you’d expect: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London: The British Library, 2018).

[3] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 587.

[4] Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 361. All other poems quoted are from this edition. Tomlinson was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Adrian Stokes, ‘Part One’ of whose Stones of Rimini is called ‘Stone and Water’: water Stokes terms ‘the dominant natural carving force’: The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 31.

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