What the Repetitions of Poetry Might Help Us Remember about Home, Belonging and the Self

By | 1 August 2018

Sounding these repetitions that embed us in place and community is an important task for poetry, and is maybe why we turn to it at heightened, frightened times in our lives. It orients us, it gives us context. And what we hear is not the remnants of a seemingly separate and distant oral tradition, but the called notes for our ways of knowing and being. The structures are as mechanical as placing a right arm across your chest to ignite a blessing, and as layered and connecting:

came a man,
came a man to the world, today, with
the lightbeard of
the prophets: he could,
if he spoke of this
time, he
only stammer and stammer,
over-, over-
(‘Pallaksch, Pallaksch.’)

from ‘Tübingen, January’ by Paul Celan

The poem speaks of ‘this time’ – the holocaust – by stammering a ‘made up’ word (‘Pallaksch’), a word encaged in speech marks and brackets, a word that sometimes means yes and sometimes no. This stammering is delivered, formally, on the machinery of return that is anaphora. This form of delivery doesn’t change the disintegration that is happening in the poem, it doesn’t save anyone from sorrow and horror, in fact the anaphora makes the sorrow sound more sorrowful, but at the same time, it carries the moment in ancient, foundational structures that make the shape and sound of a greater context, a longer line of community and belonging. The repetition of ‘Away’ in the following poem suggests a vivid physical moment in the temporal world, and a broader context, the natural world with its mutable, cyclical earthly ages. We hear how we make our own significance inside it; our ceaseless liturgies of place and faith:

Away bent spade, away straight spade,
Away each goat and sheep and lamb;
Up my rope, up my snare –
I have heard the gannet upon the sea!

From ‘St Kilda lilt’ (translated from the Gaelic)

Imagine this excerpt without the parallelism and anaphora in the first two lines: those second and third ‘Aways.’ The urgency drains. And remove the second ‘up’ and you are no longer there on the vertiginous cliffs of St Kilda with gannets diving hard and sudden into the water. Without the second ‘up’ I am being told a story about someone else’s life. I am not leaning into the poem with aural recognition lighting little bonfires in the curved bays of my DNA. I don’t mean I am learning about the lives of my ancestors, I don’t have ancestors from St Kilda, I mean I am spoken to by my ancestors, in those repetitious calls.

Content is always in a relationship with its moment and situation. Spaces make elbowroom for the unspoken beyond (or within). But what can reach across time and place are structures of repetition that in their constant returns are able to untangle themselves from the linear and singular to enact our connections and departures, our process, the way that we can belong wholly and completely to multiple places or to the multiplicities and transformations of a single place, from ‘In the Beech’ by Seamus Heaney:

My hidebound boundary tree. My tree of knowledge.
My thick-tapped, soft fledged, airy listening post.

The two ‘bounds’ in the first part of the first line are unbound by the second part and open up vistas in the second line. All parts of the transformation are carried on the anaphoric ‘My’ and on parallelism which carries alteration within its echoing of form in the first line. Neither part need give way to the other; all parts can be true.

Ali Smith’s novella Girl meets boy looks like prose but is also poetry – a big harvest poetry moon on a broad inky prose landscape – and is transported by poetic repetition through the work. The repetition allows for multiplicities: girl is also boy, boy is also girl, I is also you, you is also we. It draws on and draws up Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem that has transformation at its heart. It shows us that change is the only constant. And it shows us that connection is the still point where we live. Here’s an except from the novel where Anthea and Robin / Iphis and Ianthe make love:

… it was loamy, it was good, it was what good meant, it was earth, it was what earth meant, it was the underground of everything, the kind of soil that cleans things. Was that her tongue? Was that what they meant when they said flames had tongues? Was I melting? Would I melt? Was I gold? Was I magnesium? Was I briny, were my whole insides a piece of sea, was I nothing but salty water with a mind of its own, was I some kind of fountain, was I the force of water through stone? I was hard all right, and then I was sinew, I was a snake, I changed stone to snake in three simple moves, stoke stake snake …

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