New Poetries Banner

New Poetries Banner

Monday, 3 August 2015

John Clegg on Alex Wong's "The Landowner"

The Landowner by Alex Wong

Rambler, direct your care 
     To this magnificent gift.
Dare, rambler, to make durable those views.

     ——More trust, more debit.—— 
Lest the day come to see all trust is up, 
Learn to speak newly over nature; build 
Fresh castles for your chances to enjoy.
    Make chiffchaffs pay to find a way 
Within, from a world not edified since Eden.

Hear in the song not only expressive bird,
But a history in your tongue, to beat the bounds. 
As a child skims the ways of ideal gardens, 
     So can you then,      so have you those
Adventures to go on with, grounds
Possible to their keepers;—outworks, follies. 
from New Poetries VI © Alex Wong

One of the most substantial postwar changes to the English landscape was surely the passing of the majority of country houses from private hands: and this change has, I think, been slow to register in English poetry. Perhaps the difficulty has been the same as that which affects the casual visitor to these properties: the ambivalence between what was best and worst of the old system, how these estates are simultaneously a temple to conspicuous consumption and an English vision of prelapsarian order. (However far removed the latter concept is from our conscious sympathies, it must be part of what we imaginatively access when we appreciate, say, Austen.)  

This ambivalence is what animates Alex Wong’s ‘The Landowner’. The poem’s key word, ‘trust’, is freighted with it; the National Trust, of course, is the titular ‘landowner’ (as we know from ‘magnificent gift’, the language of brochures and panegyrics), and the financial sense of ‘trust’ is constantly foregrounded (‘magnificent gift’, ‘more debit’, ‘pay to find a way’). But at the same time, we are being shown Eden – another ‘ideal garden’ held in trust by a distant yet omnipresent landowner, in which we must ‘speak newly over nature’. The chiffchaff, I think, is emblematic of Eden because of its onomatopoeic designation: Eden being for Wong, as for other poets, the place where every object receives its single correct name. And Eden is, also, the Platonic image of the poem possible in language, towards which our duties are those of a caretaker’s or visitor’s towards a great house: ‘to beat the bounds’ (of language, of the estate), ‘to make durable’, ‘to direct [our] care’.

The pun on ‘grounds’ – both the reasons and the land in which a poem must be rooted – is beautifully handled, and in ‘keepers’ there is, perhaps, an echo of another Bible story, Tyndale’s translation of Cain’s question to God. The Eden invoked by the poem is treacherous and unstable (the ‘fresh castles’ are, surely, castles in the air); the resulting poem may turn out to be a ‘folly’, an unwisely nostalgic recreation of something already ruined; or alternatively an ‘outwork’, a working-out. ‘The Landowner’, I think, is the sort of poem that works something out, a poem which, remarkably, listens to its own advice.

No comments:

Post a Comment