Fronds and Tenrils

Helen Vendler

  • Soft Sift by Mark Ford
    Faber, 42 pp, £7.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 571 20781 2

Suppose, having been betrayed – ‘hooked/then thrown back’ – you decide to let your instant reflex, a desire for revenge, cool off overnight; then suppose you wake up the next morning and your anger takes on a no less pervasive, if different, configuration. Is this how you might be feeling?

even after dawn

has tightened still further the angle between
reflex and use, a sort of sunken
tide pushes open my ducts, washes through
or else over uncertain
crumbling defences, dissolves into itself whatever

floats, like quicklime, filters the air through fluids thicker,
heavier
than water.

Unable to find adequate words, you might find yourself reduced to a choked congestion in which

circling
cries and swirling, opaque

graffiti scrawled in black
clouds of enormous letters come to seem
to define only their own unforgiving
and yet volatile laws . . .

(‘Hooked’)

If these lines strike a ratifying chord – ‘Yes, exactly’ – then they have done at least one of the things poetry is thought to do: hold a mirror up to emotion. Mark Ford is a mirror of uncanny exactness, and what he mirrors ranges from the inarticulate wrath above to bathetic pitfalls and pratfalls:

Others – I am not the first – have found
themselves standing
on a seemingly solid patch of cliff that suddenly
starts to slide: as the knees tense and the hips swivel, the winding
path is transformed into a slalom. Through a blizzard of loam
and pebbles, oaths and jests, I tumbled towards the proverbially
treacherous soft landing.

(‘I Wish’)

Ford’s convincing analogies – the sunken tide of anger and its swirling maelstrom, the undermined cliffside and its Buster Keaton result – slide us into his plots and, before we know it, we feel a roiling of our innards as we plunge into his distress, fierce and absurd by turns.

It’s only on our return to such passages that we ask what made us so pliable to Ford’s words. Above all, it’s his gift for active metaphor, but because this and other of his resources – such as alliteration – are the oldest ones in the book, we have to inquire how he manages them so well. Why, when we read ‘standing . . . seemingly solid . . . suddenly starts . . . slide . . . swivel . . . slalom’, is this alliterative chain a susurrus rather than an assault? Surely because the vowel-sound following the initial ‘s’ is different each time; and also because the alliterative twins – ‘standing’ and ‘starts’; ‘slide’ and ‘slalom’ – are kept far enough apart not to assert themselves bluntly. Even if we sense Hopkins’s practice of vowel-variation behind Ford’s manner of alliteration, his music doesn’t resemble the anvil-effect of Hopkins’s immediately successive alliterating words: ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon.’

We’re also drawn into Ford’s poems by his conviction that his experience is no different from ours: ‘Our errands merely seem/ average and natural: every second is underwritten/by an invisible host of dubious connections.’ Ford’s ‘we’ may in this instance reflect Postmodern paranoia; but it also repeats the conventional psychoanalytic doctrine of unconscious motivation; and if the poet succeeds in naming for himself some of his previously unremarked dubious connections, the rest of us can follow in his steps. To say winningly, ‘Others – I am not the first – ’ is to return to the oldest claim of lyric: that it can reveal to us, by way of solace, that our shames and miseries, rages and concealments, boasts and psychic illnesses, are not unique.

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