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Friday, 30 September 2011

John Redmond on Will Eaves's 'Three Flies'

Three Flies by Will Eaves

Three flies on a rock,
Orion’s belt in negative,
a cold beer in my hand.
And, after the storm, the day’s
hot handkerchief shakes out
a flock of butcher birds,
black holes for eyes, from
Sugarloaf and Mount Buggery.
Calici Virus thrived up here 
and didn’t stop at rabbits. 
Cane-toads shipped in to eat beetles 
ate everything else instead. 
That’s pest control for you! 
I smiled. Which maybe shows
I like a poisoned chalice – the
creek, the hut, the iced-bun
reek of sunblock and repellant.
Butchers wait in the trees all night.
The stars settle. It’s pleasant.
from New Poetries V © Will Eaves

Rarely will a poem invite you to dislike its author. That seems a pity, after all, one of the commonest flaws of many poems is that they are coded invitations to admire—coy advertisements for a self. This is especially the case when they include a dash of modesty, a strategic measure of self-reproof. One of the immediately reassuring things about this poem is that the author doesn't fret about being disliked. As in many a curmudgeonly poem by Philip Larkin or Frederick Seidel, there is a certain glorying in unofficial feelings—thrilling to the kind of thoughts which won't get you on to Oprah. The author contemplates the extermination of local creatures and seems cheered. The notion of pest control as a pestilence seems to amuse him. I say 'author' but shouldn't I separate author from speaker? So we tell schoolchildren, and so they probably should be told. Brodsky, in Less than One, argues, however, that we shouldn't cling to the distinction, 'because a lyrical hero is invariably an author's self-projection.' Certain kinds of poem depend on the distinction seeming flimsy—this is one.

The poem has its ostensible theme—'pretext' might be a better word—which is 'oblivion'. Orion is, of course, The Hunter, and a good deal of hunting is in evidence. Butcher birds prey on flies. Cane-toads prey on beetles. Like flies, the stars will eventually get swallowed. Depending on your point of view, the speaker might be a fly, or a star, but it doesn’t matter much because he will get swallowed too. In the meantime, though, he will do some swallowing of his own: a cold beer (literally), a poisoned chalice (metaphorically.) That’s the theme, but, as with the landscape, it is not where the action is. The poem’s pressure is entirely psychological. The sensibility revealed to us is mixed: a blend of the apparently aged, the theatrically jaded, with the not-quite mature, the 'kidult'—that's where the fascination lies. As in Derek Mahon's 'Lives', the feelings are those of someone who does not have a full stake in what they survey, though they must have had a sufficient stake in something, once, to find the idea of obliteration so satisfying.

The poem gains by omission. Think of all it does not say. Somebody is supplying the author with details about the locality (the poem is set in Australia) but this person remains unidentified. The speaker is addressed but, beyond that rather sinister smile, doesn't seem bothered to reply. What, we wonder, is he really doing? His apparent passivity—the cold beer is merely in his hand, we don’t even get to see him lift it—omits the many steps he must have taken to reach this point.

One way the poem keeps us on the move is by changing the angle of view, especially in an ‘up’ and ‘down’ manner. It’s a poem with a pronounced ‘vertical axis’, a kind of existential chain with flies on one end, stars on the other, and the author hanging down somewhere in the middle. Opening verblessly, it relies on prepositions for a few lines, and then, consistent with this, goes on to make a lot of spatial positioning. Like Muldoon's 'Mink' and 'The Frog', we are encouraged to think about about what is 'native' and what is 'alien', via the introduction of species to a new environment. From the question how did he end up here? it is but a step to asking, how did he end up like this? We assume the author is travelling, but what is he travelling for? Is he on the run? Is he running from himself? All that creepy sibilance—'flies', 'virus', 'pest', 'chalice', 'pleasant'—suggests that, under the mask, Gollum might be waiting to get out.

Is the poem, then, a Grail myth 'in negative' (in the manner of Frost's 'Directive')? The poet has journeyed to a place and found a 'poisoned chalice', yet he is hardly Gawain or Galahad. 'Calici' has its origin in 'calyx', the Latin for cup, but here the magic cauldron is not a horn of plenty, but a voracious mouth, a black hole. Should the reading, then, be sexualised? Has the oral, as it were, gone anal? That would be too reductive, but, even so, a libidinal strand is detectable. The first ‘movement’ of the poem ends, after all, with 'Mount Buggery'. While this does refer to a real place (located in the state of Victoria) the more usual use of the noun might cause us to muse on the pleasantness of what is repulsive. Other darts of physicality—'Orion’s belt', 'hot handkerchief', 'reek of sunblock and repellant'—might be read by this re-arranging light.

The slightly old-fashioned atmosphere puts me in mind of a type of 1940s expatriate poem. The tone is clipped, proto-confessional, post-Audenic. Here is an Englishness made all the more English by questioning its Englishness. We think of Durrell in his 'Alexandria' moving, 'Through many negatives to what I am.' Or Douglas reflecting on his Cairo ('All this takes place in a stink of jasmin.') Another writer of warped expatriate poems, James Fenton, ghosts the last two lines ('The cigarettes are burning under the trees/Where the Staffordshire murderers wait'). The author is not saying any more than he has to. The lines are determinedly short and the most significant sentences are the shortest—'I smiled.' 'It's pleasant.' A series of intransitive verbs also suggests a policy of self-containment and self-sufficiency (verbs in need of no object). As with the sociopathic ending of Hughes's 'Hawk Roosting', the concluding lines are made more emphatic by the coincidence of sentence-endings and line-endings. The full-stops are bigger than 'normal', like bullet-holes.

John Redmond's most recent collection is MUDe (Carcanet). His Poetry and Privacy: Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry will be published by Seren in July 2012.

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