2nd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 5 :: ANDRE BAGOO IN DEFENSE OF DH LAWRENCE
IT UNCOILS itself slowly. Only after a good few years do you realise that D.H. Lawrence’s great poem ‘Snake’ has never quite left you – first read so innocently in a childhood bedroom housed under the strange-scented shade of a great mango tree at Belmont, Trinidad, and then, somehow miraculously, found again to be at the centre of everything decades later, still as hot and intense as that noon when, in the words of the narrator of the poem, “he was at the trough before me.”
Yet though we may all have encountered it, we can’t quite seem to figure out what to make of the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. In fact, very often in discourse about Lawrence a deeper ambivalence seems to prevail. We cannot quite figure out what box to put him in. Surely he could not have been both a great novelist and a great poet? (We won’t discuss the short stories, essays, the biographical work or paintings here.) Those who advocate for Lawrence make a claim for either one or the other. It seems as though some believe if he is a great novelist, then the poetry is secondary. That is the implicit stance of critic and poet Peter Campion, in a recent essay in Poetry Magazine where he makes a case against the poetry (“my admiration for Lawrence hits a wall. The thudding phrasal lines, the bardic gustiness, the refrains so heavy” and “too often in his Collected, my admiration for Lawrence hits a wall.”) He even manages to cast doubt on the novels. (Campion’s first sentence is this: “D.H. Lawrence seems to me so great a novelist that only the ‘seems to me’ feels wrong there — as if I were offering my opinion that the Rio Grande is a river”. In this sentence, the calling of attention to “seems to me” makes the statement of fact about the place of the novels read more like lip-service).
This kind of ambivalence is perhaps responsible for obscuring the genuine achievement of Lawrence as poet, whatever faults we may find in some of the poems (many of which were not published in his lifetime but have since been collected and laid bare in complete editions for all of posterity to see). It means though I was aware of Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow and Women In Love, somehow, despite encountering ‘Snake’ from an early age, I had not gone further into his poetry until much later. I now confidently feel that Lawrence was a great poet and the world is all the poorer if it refuses to accept this.
Forget ‘Snake’, which you can read on your own time here. Let us look at another poem, ‘Men in New Mexico’, a poem that might easily slip beneath the radar of those only interested in the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which is, incidentally, a book not without merit which has been wrongly pigeon-holed as mere titillation).
Men in New Mexico
Round a white hearth of desert –
While the sun goes round
And round and round the desert,
The mountains never get up and walk about.
They can’t, they can’t wake.
They camped and went to sleep
In the last twilight
Of Indian gods;
And they can’t wake.
Indians dance and run and stamp –
White men make gold-mines and the mountains unmake them
In their sleep.
The Indians laugh in their sleep
Like a man when he sleeps and his sleep is over, and he can’t wake up
And he lies like a log and screams and his scream is silent
Because his body can’t wake up;
So he laughs from fear, pure fear, in the grip of the sleep.
A dark membrane over the will, holding a man down
Even when the mind has flickered awake;
A membrane of sleep, like a black blanket.
We walk in our sleep, in this land,
Somnambulist wide-eyed afraid.
We scream for someone to wake us
And our scream is soundless in the paralysis of sleep,
And we know it.
The Penitentes lash themselves till they run with blood
In their efforts to come awake for one moment;
To tear the membrane of this sleep…
The Indians thought the white man would awake them…
And instead, the white men scramble asleep in the mountains,
And ride on horseback asleep forever through the desert,
And shoot one another, amazed and mad with somnambulism,
Thinking death will awaken something…
Born with a caul,
A black membrane over the face,
And unable to tear it,
Though the mind is awake.
Round the ash-white hearth of the desert;
And though the sun leaps like a thing unleashed in the sky
They can’t get up, they are under the blanket.
All of the elements of Lawrence’s work are present, including his clear control of the free-verse form, varying line length to control pace; the use of repetition to create almost mantra-like, hypnotic effects; shifts of tone and the mingling of formal diction with the vernacular to create interesting textures. These may all seem like simple tools being deployed, but they are being marshalled here by a remarkably effective poet.
It seems to me that the refrains being employed here are not heavy-handed but rather perfectly evocative of the somnambulistic state that Lawrence wishes to replicate: the poem is dream, is sleep.
Going in closer, from the first two stanzas Lawrence deploys the parallelism of the Psalms (“The mountains never get up and walk about. / They can’t, they can’t wake.”). This is the poet as preacher, yes, but what he has to say is not a simple, didactic lesson. It is the opposite.
The opening of the poem presents us with the inverse of what is going on in St John of the Cross’s ‘On a dark night’. Whereas in that poem the night-time is a time of slumber, heightening the drama playing out with the individual sulking around with desire in the darkness, Lawrence’s poem re-enforces the idea of day as being the true concealer. But this is a poem decidedly intent on not relegating things to skulking amid darkness. Instead, it confronts us with the horror of things that still cannot move even when they should be awake. This, of course, in addition to the wonderful conceit of a mountain as a person, trapped forever in the same spot, as a traveller might be, and all this can represent.
In the third stanza, repetition of interlocking phrases creates polyvalent effects. “They camped and went to sleep / In the last twilight / Of Indian gods; / And they can’t wake.” Who has camped? The mountains? Are specific people being introduced into the poem? And then, who, of these, “can’t wake”? The mountains? The gods? The people? A puzzle is being created, locking in those getting closer to it, beguiling and transfixing in a way that probably results in the same paralysis caused or experienced symbolically by the landscape of New Mexico.
Toward the end of the poem, starting in the fourth stanza, Lawrence repeats the phrase “no good”, each time getting maximum effect from the multiple meanings possible. Does he decry the idea of a set of deontological values defining good (no such thing as good)? Or is the seemingly circular search for knowledge – deferred to each alien culture, appearing greener on the other side – a futile attempt to drill down into that which the mountains are unable to solve (it’s no good trying)? The joy of the poem is how the mystery is kept alive and just out of sight. A mystical struggle is going on, but even that is shrouded in uncertainty. This is a poet who is seeking avenues for a continual expression of the world of the present, who would remove all anchors and leave us afloat. For him, it is a tragedy to not think beyond the fixedness of death, “a black membrane over the face”; oppressive institutions; slumbering senses and intuitions – all hushed though “the mind is awake”.
This poem is also a good example of what Lawrence called, in one of the introductions to his collected poems, the poetry “of that which is at hand: the immediate present.” The strands “are all flying, quivering, intermingling” to produce something that flowers quite mysteriously.
“I don’t want everlasting flowers, and I don’t want to offer them to anybody else,” Lawrence said in a foreward to an edition of his 1929 collection Pansies. “A flower passes, and that perhaps is the best of it. If we can take it in its transience, its breath, its maybe mephistophelian, maybe palely ophelian face, the look it gives, the gesture of its full bloom, and the ways it turns upon us to depart – that was the flower, we have had it, and no immortelle can give us anything in comparison.” Yet, ironically perhaps, we return to these transient blooms because with time, they still hold us and speak to our present.
Though I’ve been asked to quote from a poem of mine inspired by Lawrence, the process of writing poetry is so mysterious and intuitive that I would want to avoid plucking out a poem programmatically and saying it was prompted by his work, especially since all poetry seems to be a deeply collaborative act between inner and outer selves as well as other external sources and internal impulses which may not always be accounted for. I’d much rather quote another poem by him and tempt readers to go searching for more, like the narrator of ‘Snake’ does.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big,
Probably he was a jabbing terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.
DAVID HERBERT LAWRENCE was a prolific novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and painter. He was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in 1885. His father was a coal miner, and his mother a former school teacher. Lawrence attended the University of Nottingham and earned a teaching certificate. His first novel, White Peacocks, was published when he was 25. In 1912 Lawrence met Frieda von Richtofen; the couple married in 1914 after she divorced her first husband. Following World War I, the Lawrences traveled and lived abroad—in Italy, Spain, Australia, Sri Lanka, and on a ranch near Taos, New Mexico. Lawrence died of tuberculosis in France in 1930; his ashes are at Taos. His volumes of poetry include Look! We Have Come Through (1917); Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923); Pansies (1929) and Nettles (1930).
ANDRE BAGOO is a journalist and poet, born in 1983, whose first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) in 2012. His poetry was recently included in Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2 and has also appeared in or is forthcoming at: Almost Island; Boston Review; Cincinnati Review; Caribbean Review of Books; Caribbean Writer; Draconian Switch; Landscapes Journal, St Petersburg Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. An e-chapbook, From the Undiscovered Country, a collaboration with the artist Luis Vasquez La Roche, was published at The Drunken Boat in 2013.