Pablo Neruda said this:
It’s the words that sing, they soar and descend… I bow to them… I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down. I love words so much… The unexpected ones… the ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly they drop… I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them… Everything exists in the word.
I have extracted this from a much longer piece written by Neruda in his memoirs, but it gives you an idea of how much words meant to him. Most poets share a similar passion and compile lists of favourite words. Some of the words on my current list are: sassafras, pandemonium, mandolin, pasture, gondola, rubicund and myrrh. Thus, when I came across Mona Attamimi’s poem ‘Myrrh’, which is from her long poem, ‘The Sisters’, I was immediately drawn to it.
Of course, a poem is always more than its title, and this poem you’ll find has a powerful and exotic narrative. Straight away suspense and drama are evoked through the appearance of the ‘deaf white cat’. Making the cat ‘deaf’ is indicative of the power and suggestive nature of the language. The poem seems to me a masterpiece of economy, what is not said as important as what is said. The poet gives us just enough in order to hook our interest, the selection of detail evocative and resonant of strangeness. The cat sniffing the onyx ring on the finger of the hand that holds the bag of myrrh is wonderfully conceived, as is the image of Ruda ‘wrapped in the scent of burnt salt’ in stanzas 6-7. So much in the poem works through suggestion. We have forebodings of war and destruction, the wrath of warlords and gods, a story that you feel is going to plunge its readers and characters into darkness, before they emerge into light. The success of a long narrative poem depends upon how the details, the characters and the drama are dealt with, and I would say that restraint and judicious choice of image are essential ingredients for avoiding melodrama and keeping the reader’s interest. It is obvious that this poet knows very well the weight of certain words – their gravity, their lightness and all that’s in between – and she knows balance and poise, too, demonstrated by the poem’s pacing and by the tight stanzaic structure playing out against the poem’s looser rhythmical structure. After reading this poem, I feel the words have been a memorable gift, just as precious and exotic as one of those six hundred pouches of Nile myrrh. – JB
Myrrh In the deep of night a deaf white cat strays into a garden, leaps onto a window, lands in the Grand Mafraz, and stares at a horde of turbaned men rewarding the Lord of Seiyun six hundred pouches of Nile myrrh. Her tail brushes the Lord’s wrist; he idly strokes her dry nose; she sniffs the onyx ring on the finger gripping a pouch of myrrh, then the fur on her back prickles, her spine arches and her claws dig into the cold ground. * In the corridor, under a thick cloak, Ruda waits for her Lord to disburse her a pouch of myrrh. At first light, she pockets her prize and stands by Lord Seiyun while he turns the key to his daughter’s room. Wrapped in the scent of burnt salt she enters the dark alone, whisks the child-bride from her cot and hides Khigala between the folds of her thick cloak. In the silent hall the air is still, and there is no sight of Lord Seiyun. Like a ghoul riding the wind, Ruda glides into secret passages and chambers clutching the child till she reaches a tunnel that opens onto a parched meadow beyond the city gates. She emerges in the morning chill as the Lord’s army prepares its journey into the Rub Al’ Khali. Behind the fading moon and white sky, a scar-faced god witnesses Khigala quietly clinging onto Ruda’s sleeves as they travel through the desert in a caravan overflowing with pepper, barrels of pomegranates and a handful of slaves: dowry for an ageing groom.