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,
than water.

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

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 . . .


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.

A strikingly modern aspect of Ford as an author is that he does not draw conclusions. Not for him the ironic distance of the Shakespearean couplet: ‘All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.’ Instead, he ends up where he began. He was feeling evening wrath; now he is feeling morning wrath; he was on the treacherous cliff; now he tumbles towards the treacherous soft landing. Life is insoluble; but its phases call out for description. Ford cites, as an epigraph to Part II of Soft Sift, Emily Dickinson’s prophetic words: ‘And through a Riddle, at the last –/Sagacity, must go –’. Each of Ford’s poems is a riddle; and the riddle is not dissolved when one reaches sagacity. Sagacity is the recognition of the riddling nature of emotional and intellectual existence.

And – to keep things lifelike – there is rarely only one plot unrolling in a Ford poem. In the many layers of the contemporary day, plots are parallel and confounding:

Debts and profits
accumulate, each driving the imagination to expand
into distant, untouched regions. One shivers
or sweats, as the seasons break and fronds and tendrils
turn into wallpaper, and wallpaper into tendrils and fronds.

(‘You Must’)

One stock plunges, another soars; red ink and black ink compete on the ledger pages; mercury rises in one thermometer, falls in another; the imagination races to keep up with ever-changing configurations; and, in the closing image of this passage (Ford’s most intricate) the living stiffens into the artificial, as the artificial blossoms into the delicately alive.

The lines about the living (‘fronds’) versus the artificial (‘wallpaper’) are typical of Ford’s poetry in being compelling on many counts, of which I shall name only some. First of all, although this compound image has a regular chiastic form – life: art :: art: life, abba – the a has two parts (‘fronds and tendrils’) while the b has, asymmetrically, only one (‘wallpaper’). Second, the closing repetition reverses the two symbols of life, so that instead of the lines reading (as they ‘should’ in a proper abba chiasm) ‘fronds and tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: fronds and tendrils’, they read ‘fronds and tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: tendrils and fronds’. The combination of coercive order (the symmetrical double bracketing abba always intimates a mind made up) with a surprise (the unexpected reversal of the two life-components in the last of the four brackets) engenders a sudden triple-bracketing (‘fronds: tendrils: wallpaper :: wallpaper: tendrils: fronds’; abccba). In the unexpectedness of their reversed arrangement, they ‘defeat’ the foreseen law of the original double abba chiasm, reminding us that life always harbours the possibility of surprise.

But to what can we ascribe the melting power of the phrase ‘fronds and tendrils . . . tendrils and fronds’? We don’t notice it only because it occurs in a chiasm: we find it exquisite in itself. The word ‘fronds’ evokes ferns, grace, delicacy, branching greenness, and the word ‘tendrils’ not only brings to mind searching, yearning, airiness and fragile greenness, but also punningly suggests ‘tender’ while musically echoing, in its ‘endr’, the ‘rond’ of ‘fronds’. These words put us in mind of everything spring-like and springing, a relief from the speaker’s former shivering and sweating. And after being exposed to the artist’s perennial fear that all his emotional endeavours merely end up as inert designs on paper, we experience his immense relief when art itself stimulates life – when wallpaper, astonishingly, becomes organic, mobile and fertile.

‘It came to seem to me as if words, experiences, could only ever hope to enter the looking-glass realm of art by first passing through some narrow, predetermined aperture . . . the rondeau, the haiku, the sonnet, the couplet, the eight-line stanza, or whatever,’ Ford said in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (spring 2001). The lyrics in Soft Sift often come close to being strayed sonnets. Like many modern poets, from Yeats to Ashbery, Ford writes poems that don’t keep to 14 lines, but that nonetheless feel like sonnets. Here is a typical 12-line example, from a sequence called ‘Inside’, embodying a terrified response to emotional pressure, disturbed aims, external storms, and an endangered brain:

There are wheels within wheels, he yelled
At the wall, and within those wheels
Are tiny images, untitled books, desperate
Or creepy entanglements. The arrow-headed cursor points
Into space, but glides like a shark between
Sandbar and reef: I think of the pods, the soft
Fissured matter that makes up the brain, and how
Lightning forks and tears through swollen
Layers of cloud, burns like a tattoo in a far corner
Of the retina; reeling, in a cross-eyed
Fleeting trance, I’d feel I peered through jagged, hair-line
Cracks in air into streams of spiralling,
contagious fire.

Like Shakespeare’s quatrains, Ford’s shift gears as they go. The first quatrain here, mechanical and Dickensian (‘wheels within wheels’), depends on wheels, books and a computer cursor; the second, turning natural, yearns towards space and air but can find only the ocean and its shark, combined with its earth-hazards of sandbar and reef; the third, peering through clouds, cringes under exposure to fire. A form of anguish is being mediated through the canonical four elements, gradually worsening in effect. With the physical pain of a lightning-tattooed retina, and with the terror of a battlefield just suppressed in such words as ‘cross-eyed’, ‘hair-line’ and ‘cracks in air’ (‘cross-hairs’, ‘hair-trigger’ and ‘shots in air’ come to mind), we arrive at ‘contagious fire’, realising that we, too, are vulnerable to its virulence. In Ford’s vertigo, we see Shakespeare’s ‘Mars his sword’ and ‘war’s quick fire’ rephrased.

Ford’s unembarrassed collocations of the cursor and the tattoo, ‘creepy entanglements’ and the retina, literary ‘wheels within wheels’ and a furious living yell, display his freedom of motion. You never know what cultural detritus will appear next in his lines. The closing douzain of ‘Inside’ glides easily, for instance, from realistic newspaper discourse – ‘A new regime, supposedly’ – to allegorical personification: ‘and even darting, bright-feathered/Rumour is lost for words.’ Metaphor-hopping of this sort hopes to register not only the fleeting adjustments of the brain, but also those of the emotions:

Squinting sun, another set of assumptions to watch quiver
And disband: while fragments of a searing, inadmissible
Question blister the tongue . . .

In Ford’s work, epistemological uncertainty (how assumptions quiver and disband) is always twinned with emotional trouble: denial sequesters certain ‘searing’ questions under the label ‘inadmissible’; a lightning-revelation pierces the cloud of denial and tattoos the retina. The searing and the tattooing and the blistering are only three instances of Ford’s apparently inexhaustible ability to make the reader flinch.

It’s not always easy to read Soft Sift, precisely because of its mobility of reference and its condensation of feeling. On occasion, an allegory can seem less than precisely focused: ‘Beyond the Boulevard’, for instance, begins with an unidentified antagonist and unnamed protagonists:

He merely flapped when we steamed by, then settled
To his accounts; we were all dressed in clean
Summer clothes. Our hearts were thumping in our breasts.

We discover, as we read on, that the protagonists are a sports team who may be endangered or lost; but, like the putative threat, the unidentified ‘he’ remains mysterious. The poem closes:

Every team learns to ignore its desperadoes; it was,
However, as yet unclear who would be chosen
To double back through the streets in search of help, or directions.

Ford almost always prefers intimation of this sort to declaration; and I haven’t given up hope that one day ‘Beyond the Boulevard’ will snap into fuller coherence for me; other Ford poems have done this when I’ve reread them. His poems will in time attract extended inquisitive comment, precisely because their method is one of intimation, suggestion, hint, fable.

In the best fables, feeling is clear while application is multiple. Take Ford’s bold appropriation of the Long Man of Wilmington – one of those figures carved in the past, and maintained in the present, on chalk downs. The poem (‘The Long Man’) is written in two parts, the first referring to the Long Man as ‘he’; the second – waking the reader up – as ‘I’:

The Long Man

of Wilmington winces with the dawn; he has just
endured yet another mythical, pointless, starry vigil . . .
Across the damp fields a distant
siren pleads for attention; he cannot
move, nor, like a martyr, disprove the lie of the land . . .
I woke up feeling cold and distended,
my feet pointing east, my head in low-hanging
clouds . . .
I kept picturing someone tracing
a figure on the turf, and wearing this outline
into a path by walking and walking around
the hollow head, immobile limbs, and cavernous torso.

These lines are merely the skeleton of a resonant 25-line poem, but they convey Ford’s marvellous way of noticing something in the landscape that most of us have come across in life or in a photograph (in this case, the giant white outline of a man on the green chalk downs) and then imaginatively entering the image. He moves into it here first as a figure separate from himself yet endowed with feeling (wincing, enduring); next as someone indistinguishable from himself (‘I woke up’) though retaining an allegorical extension (‘my feet pointing east, my head in low-hanging clouds’); and finally as a thing doggedly made, its figure traced and retraced by someone driven to create a replica of himself to gigantic scale, even though this act of magnification renders the head hollow, the limbs immobile, and the huge torso empty. The story is haunting, but not confined to a single interpretation. As in most of Ford’s symbolic allegories, the end changes nothing: the Long Man remains on his hill, wincing and cold, aching and impotent in his martyred all-weather vigil. But perhaps, through him, a choice of life – one of persistent investigation – has been described, and our contemporary perception of nature – the sense of its inscrutability – clarified.

Soft Sift is Mark Ford’s second book of poems (the first, Landlocked, was a notable production, comic and desperate by turns) and his critical book on the eccentric French writer Raymond Roussel appeared last year. Ford has absorbed technical possibilities from Roussel’s stylistic obsessions, Ashbery’s montages (he wrote his DPhil on Ashbery) and the insouciance of Frank O’Hara. But nobody could now mistake Ford for any of the writers who have influenced him: watching his ‘long lost premises turn inside out’ (as he puts it in ‘Living with Equations’), we are led by means of ambiguous but compelling clues down the rabbit-hole, where things swell or shrink, grow or vanish – keeping pace, through the ‘inflexible etiquette’ of form (‘Misguided Angel’) with the besieged contemporary self. Ford is the cartoonist of the soul’s adventures, but the cartoons have a deadly underside of seriousness:

I lay emptied as a fallen
Leaf until startled awake by a blinding flash
Of dry lightning, and the onset of this terrible thirst.

(‘Twenty-Twenty Vision’)

As a parable of the awakening of consciousness to a ‘twenty-twenty vision’ of the human predicament, Soft Sift has unerringly picked up what a sound engineer would call the ‘room tone’ of our eclectic contemporary frame of reference. The book avoids both sentimentality and cynicism; it exposes pain and bafflement with a marked self-irony; it raises the acute problem of nostalgia (‘my doom is never to forget/My lost bearings’) without being paralysed by it. Its dark episodes – slightly surreal, unnerving, and often farcical – unroll before us, as on a screen of rapidly changing images, while an enchanting voice-over, in a diction all its own, tells its painful, accurate and self-mocking tale.