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Friday, 16 September 2011

Justin Quinn on Julith Jedamus's 'The Drowning of Drenthe'

The Drowning of Drenthe by Julith Jedamus

I travelled to a level land
Past sleeping towns with names of sand:
          Now they are gone.

The polders from the marshes won,
The houses made of brick not stone:
          Raise no alarm.

The linseed mill with icy arms,
The whitewashed churches purged of charms
          Evade our look.

The beeches smooth as vellum books,
The storks and blackbirds, doves and rooks
          Are rare as rare.

The coffee urns, the huis-vrouw cheer,
The biscuits furled like the New Year:
          The guests are late.

Bronze dagger, pin and carcanet,
Twice-strangled girl rescued from peat
          Bright waves obscure.

The tower wet with widows' tears,
The lion weltered in cold lairs
          Cannot be traced.

I hear the cries from each high place
As it rose up, victorious:
          The rampant sea.

The past is new, the future old;
Who can say now what rhymes are told
          In this drowned world?
from New Poetries V © Julith Jedamus

The great pleasure of rules is keeping them until the right moment comes to break them. This is what the sea does at the end of the poem. It refuses to rhyme with the first line of the last verse: the sea should make a sound like the word 'old'. Or rather the next line should be, or talk of me, or flee, or offer a key. What rhyme is resisted here? There are so many words with the same phoneme, it’s impossible to say. The last tercet compensates by providing what many critics hate—'closure', with the three lines singing out with one rhyme. Why do they hate closure? As far as I can work out, they seem to dislike closure because it is a pretense that the world's OK. The poet who wrote this poem doesn't, fortunately, think that the world is OK, and to prove the point removes an 'r' from the phoneme. Poets like the word 'world' very much: it gives us a feeling of vastness, but it is difficult to rhyme well. Awful words have to be avoided, such as 'curled', 'furled', 'swirled', 'whirled', 'purled' and worst of all 'skirled'. But we still have to keep writing poems that would give us good rhymes for the word.

Some of the rhymes are old and evoke other poets: 'alarm/arms' makes me think of Yeats's 'Politics'; 'level land/sand' makes me think of Shelley's 'lone and level sands'. These romantics, especially the older English one, liked mountain-tops and not Dutch plains. They are like the sea in this poem, that enjoys rising up over the level landscape. There were rumours of rule breaking before this. The linseed cannot only have one arm to rhyme with alarm, and so the sibilant is added. 'Traced' prompts the word 'placed', and the shape of the preceding line suggests 'cannot be placed', which is a suggestive
uncertainty. But the poet denies us this, and lops off the dental. I take issue with 'obscure/tears/lairs'—for my taste much too louche. Also 'place/victorious' is wrong, to my ear, especially given the shift in accent in the second line. But I'm not complaining, given the pleasures the poem provides, as we read it properly from right to left.

Justin Quinn's latest book is Close Quarters (Gallery Press).

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