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Friday, 14 October 2011

Sasha Dugdale on James Womack's 'Balance'

Balance by James Womack

It didn't want to let the morning
Come, as if the globe were rocking back,
Back and forwards, twisting gently like
A fair-day weathervane, and turning
Towards the sun, turning us away.
Calm but firm, the world like a mother
Did not allow it to be either
One thing or the other, night or day.
The sky was gritty with darkness, with
The light and the dark mixed, for the air
Was full of masonry-dust, plaster,
Powder, snowflakes, soot. I thought that if
I tore the page off the calendar
The next page would have the same number.
It didn't want to let morning come.
Fine by us. But the mechanism
Slips suddenly out of gear—we are
Jerked forward, lose balance once more.
This is the last station in autumn—
The sun is up, the scales have fallen.
from New Poetries V © James Womack

I copied and pasted this poem into a document so I could read it and write about it at the same time. The computer grasped the words but dropped them without punctuation and line structure onto the blank sheet. As an exercise, in a kind of poetic curiosity, I began to put back in the line breaks and when I had reassembled 'Balance' I checked it against the original. The poem had reassembled itself easily and entirely, like a well-made travel cot, snapping rigid back into place, the rhymes and internal rhythms bolting down, despite the weathervanity, the apparently undecided cusp of a moment it describes.

I like this balance between day and night, and between seasons, like a gently rocking cradle, I like this observation because I know it to be generally true. But the gentleness, the lunar holding pattern, belies a ruthless diurnal drive forward. In James Womack's poem the move forward is a jolt, a jerk, the loss of balance. But this is odd: his machine has slipped out of gear. In his version of time the rocking motion is the constant, the drive onwards is the mechanical failure: a surprising and thought-provoking reversal for the reader, who knows all about the inevitability of time and the seasons. The morning is dissonance and decision and revelation: 'the scales have fallen' is a beautiful rendering of balance lost and eyes opened, some cradle-innocence shorn away.

I find myself teased and made anxious by the masonry-dust and plaster. What has happened in the half-light, as the snow falls mixed with the soot? Womack has not written any particular event into the poem, but we are immediately alert to the possibilities. Too many memories of early Autumn days darkened by grit and horror, when balance has been irrevocably lost. And the placing of horror, once it has been read and registered, changes the poem, works at it uneasily. Are we rocked by the world, because we need numbing and calming? Are we held in this no-time because the wrench forward into a new world is too much? Or is the world merely reverberating, the weathervane swinging aimlessly, the calendar’s torn pages repeating? I cannot honestly say whether this balance is benign or not, whether it is anything to us, or we anything to it.

A last word about the last station. The last station is the burial. Silence and darkness. But in this poem the last station is brightness and vision. No sense of reconciliation though, as we survey the world after its mechanical convulsion. No redemption. The scales have fallen. Judgment has been made.

Sasha Dugdale's most recent collection is Red House (Oxford Poets/Carcanet).

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