Hennecker’s Ditch by Kate Kilalea
I stood at the station
like the pages of a book
whose words suddenly start to swim.
Wow. The rain. Rose beetles.
Formal lines of broad-leaved
ran the length of the platform.
Ickira trecketre stedenthal, said the train.
Slow down please, said the road.
Sometimes you get lucky, said the estate agent
onto his mobile phone,
it all depends on the seller.
Past the thicket, through the window,
the painéd months are coming for us –
See the bluff, the headland, announcing
the presence of water.
See the moths...
The trees walk backwards into the dark.
* * *
Hello? Hello? The snow
comes in sobs.
Cars sob across town.
When you found me
I was a rickety house.
There was a yellow light and a blanket
folded up on the stoep
and the yellow light – Dear Circus –
was a night-blooming flower.
We pushed a chest of drawers against the door.
It’s nice now that the corridor’s empty.
A necklace. Vacant. Light wrecked the road.
We took off our clothes
and did cocaine for three weeks.
The washing machine shook so badly
that a man asleep four floors down reached out
to hold it:
Shut that dirty little mouth of yours...
* * *
You’ll never find it, he said over dinner,
a black lobster and bottle of vinegar,
the dog tilts his head from beneath
the canopy of the Karoo tree.
Look at my face, he said. Can you see what
A red jersey. Bot bot bot.
Boats on the water were moving at different speeds.
The baker took a portable radio
into the garden
to listen to the cricket
in the shade of the bougainvillea.
It was cloudy but hot. We were moving
Three times he came upstairs and made love to her
then went back down and read his book.
The air was blood temperature
and the consistency of blood.
Look at my face, he said.
I see you. I see you. I see you
in our murky bath
I see you in our black and white bath like a cat.
* * *
Barbed wire around the fisheries.
A letter from the municipality
Come closer, sir. Step into my office.
Above the harbour, tin roofs and cranes.
Henry? he said.
Hello? Henry? he said.
What’s been happening in Dog Town these days?
The Audi keys lay heavy on the table.
Aaaaah Henry, he said. How wonderful it is
to see you.
The mists came down.
The moon was bright.
Collectors searched the night market
with flashlights, and the wind outside,
with its slight chill, howled.
Henry, the breezes – they bolt across the open market
like meatballs, Henry,
like windmills, Henry,
like policemen, Henry, apprehending criminals...
A man in a collared shirt put a cigarette
to his mouth
and looked at his watch.
And what happened then?
He wore a street hat. He wore a street hat and
carried a belt over one arm.
And what happened afterwards?
Tell her... I think he has given up.
Tell her... I know now, this is what I’ve been afraid of
all my life.
He closed the door and came in.
He closed the door and the sound of the bathwater dimmed.
* * *
Thirty-one back gardens.
Thirty-one back gardens overlooking
of thirty-one houses.
Thirty-one houses looking out over the sea.
And the sea -- of course it was -- was marbled
Are you sleeping? – Yes.
Figures in yellow mackintoshes make their way
along the coastal path.
And what then, what then if I were to ask,
How much longer?
If I were to say, How much further?
It’s just –
I have used up all my reserves.
There was a yellow light
and a blanket folded up on the stoep.
The light was burning dimly now.
By that time,
the light had begun to flicker.
He opened the door and fastened
his lonely shadow,
and she fastened hers
and sat on the chair.
I think we are in the middle, aren’t we.
He said, I think we may be.
We certainly aren’t at the beginning anymore.
* * *
The moon was acting strangely.
The moon was moving fast.
It was cloudy but hot.
Electricity cables gathered round a pole
like the roof of a marquee.
He wore a gold vagina on his chest.
He had gold lining on the flaps of his jackét.
She lay her head against the window and sang a song
by Silvio Rodriguéz
wearing ten gold balls on a chain around her neck.
Sometimes we are just so full of emotion.
And what happened then,
And what happened afterwards.
Chicken bones and Pick ‘n Pay receipts.
We were moving as shadows.
And the only light
was the light from the bakery.
A lampshade swings above the window.
We have no history. Nothing has passed between us.
A hundred years pass like this.
I need to see more glass!
I need to see more glass!
This has to be more gentle.
from New Poetries V © Kate Kilalea
On YouTube, you can see Kate Kilalea reading 'Hennecker’s Ditch'—it's called 'Dear Circus' in the video—which she introduces by saying that 'there’s no work to be done' by her audience; she adds that one will find in the poem a 'series of characters and observations without any kind of authorial interpretation, so I'm in the same position as you, and there's no work to be done, really, but to listen.' And indeed, the only other explanation of any kind she gives is that 'it's worth knowing that the character Henry is a dog.'
It's hard to tell from the video what the audience makes of this, but my ears perked up when I heard Kilalea lay down that gauntlet because 'work', in this context, is such a misleading word. Watching her on my computer, I set to work right away. And what I did wasn't very difficult, and it's what many readers would do, for the fun of it, and out of curiosity. A laptop and a few books on the shelf—the tools were all readily to hand.
Kilalea's mention of 'characters and observations', for instance, immediately brings to mind T.S. Eliot ('He Do the Police in Different Voices') as well as Marianne Moore, whose first book was called Observations. And when a contemporary poet devises a character named Henry, one is going to think of John Berryman's Dream Songs. So, after I read a printed-out copy of 'Hennecker's Ditch', I reached for my books by these poets to root around awhile. I got lost in them, which was great fun. But my roaming though their pages – not exactly work – didn't quite answer the question of whether these initial associations were important, or useful, or even pertinent. I thought I'd better dig in a little more.
I Googled 'Hennecker’s Ditch'. After all, I'm a reader who lives in the US, and I didn't know whether this is a real place or not, or if so, what significance it could possibly have; it might be, for instance, a place like Basil Bunting's Brigflatts, or Eliot's East Coker, or Frank O’Hara's Second Avenue. With a few keystrokes I find a place called Hennicker's Ditch in a BBC report about a site exposed during construction for the future Velopark (whatever that is!) to the North-East of the Olympic Park: the ditch was a medieval waterway along the route of the ancient river Leyton. But is this ditch same as Kilalea's, with its minutely different spelling? I read through the poem a few times, doing no further work at all, and felt that it just might be. I then left the text to read up on the poet, who I discover is from South Africa, though she now lives in the UK. This bodes well, I feel. But is this information crucial to my reading? I didn’t work very hard to get it, but even a small and pleasurable effort leads me to wonder whether the poet is right to dismiss this way of reading her work. Isn’t that my own call, anyway? Either way: to borrow words from the very first stanza of the poem, as I reread 'Hennecker's Ditch' it's as if I'm standing 'at the station / like the pages of a book / whose words suddenly start to swim'.
I push forward, try to let puzzling things pass, but it’s hard to do. 'Ickira trecketre stedenthal', for instance, says the train at her station. How on earth can I resist looking this up? But when I Google the phrase, all I get is... a link to the poem itself, as published in PN Review. I'm now quite distant from my Eliotic and Berrymanesque touchstones; I'm in, let's say, a postmodern place, yet I feel fine. I’m practically in another country, and I like it. The poem is lengthy, and it unfolds... like a poem, or a bit of travel. And so I read, just taking it all in, how the road talks, a real estate agent is overheard, somebody repeatedly and directly addresses (in italics) a Circus (and remember the poem’s apparently provisional title). Trees walk backward into the dark, and I try here to think about Dante, but it just doesn’t get me anywhere. So I keep going wherever the poem takes me. And when Hennecker's Ditch at last actually appears in the poem, a dinner companion (the fare is black lobster and vinegar, which is simultaneously surreal and eschatalogical) says: 'You'll never find it...' And I never do. But a Karoo tree is mentioned, and here the internet helps again: Karoo is a South African term – a word of uncertain etymology that relates to a semi-desert region. And with delight I discover that there's both a Great and Little Karoo.
As an editor, I read lots of poems. I confess that this has led me to a jaded bias against poetry that uses the word 'bougainvillea' because most poets who plant it in their poems, with the possible exception of Derek Walcott, are trying to ride on its florid coattails, trying to import the exotic. But Kilalea's poem really is exotic. Even her name is, for me, exotic (it chimes with Karoo). Is it wrong to say this? I feel lushly lost, flustered, and rather happy to be in such a state. And when I stumble upon the lines 'Bot bot bot' and 'Tick-a-tick-ooh, tick-a-tick-ah', I'm happier still to see them as analogues with language that poetry has always deployed in its most mysteriously ebullient moments. There's Bunting's 'tweet, tweet, twaddle, / tweet, tweet, twat; Tweet, tweet, twaddle', for instance, and Eliot's 'Jug Jug' and 'Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug'; and (I’m showing off now) Lyly's 'Jug, jug, jug, jug, Tereu', Nashe's 'Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo', and Skelton's 'Dug, dug, / Jug, jug, / Good yere and good luk, / With chuk, chuk, chuk, chuk'.
And now the poem says: 'It was cloudy but not. We were moving as shadows.' I do feel the warmish murk. I can see figures from the past, poetry's and even my own, moving as shadows. The poem's landscape is partly familiar and partly brand-new, and it’s oddly ravishing. 'Three times he came upstairs and made love to her, / then went back down and read his book.' As an ardent, but bookish fellow, I feel pleased and warmly curious. They say that the word travel has its roots in travail, but I don't feel that I've been working very hard at all.
Before long, Henry, as promised, appears. He's asked about what’s happening in Dog Town. Dare I think of Charles Olson, whose famous Maximus came from Dogtown (a place inland from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and depicted by Marsden Hartley)? John Berryman would have. But those poets were bookish and ardent modernists; what, I wonder, are we? 'Aaaaah Henry', the unknowable 'he' of the poem sighs: 'How wonderful it is to see you.' There are things that can only exist in the poet's imagination, like Stevens's jar in Tennessee, and so I am unfazed by Kilalea's breezes that are said to be like meatballs, like windmills, like policemen (Eliot again?) apprehending criminals...
And now, a fellow like, say, Prufrock, or someone from Eliot's 'Observations' puts a cigarette in his mouth, looks at his watch. An italicized voice asks: And what happened then? And what happened afterwards? I note that these questions are posed using the past tense. And ... well, I can’t tell you what happened next. You’ll need to read the poem on your own. You may have to do things like Google the musician Silvio Rodriguéz; you can tell from his name that he’s a musician, can’t you? And that will depend upon your inclination to “work” to read a poem. But the poet has excused us. Why? Well, sometimes, the italicized voice says, we are just so full of emotion. Sometimes, by the same token, we are not. There’s a time to work, and a time to refrain from working ... but I've misremembered; the ancient words I meant to bring to mind are these:
What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?I stop working, for now.
There's a voice in the poem that says: 'We have no history. / Nothing has passed between us. // A hundred years pass like this.' I take this to mean that we can have it both ways: work, and no work. Time passes, and leaves behind its texts and ditches and references, all waiting to be lost and perhaps found again. A poem is a place of amusement and musing; it really is a circus, a dear old circus, after all.
* * *
'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music', Pater famously said, but poetry perhaps aspires more constantly in that direction than do the other arts. Basil Bunting, describing the 'sonata' form he became interested in for his poems, said—
With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.Bunting's imprecations about poetry and music are often misunderstood and misapplied; really, he was just saying that poetry can take over some of the techniques that we usually only know from music, and I think Kilalea is after something along those lines, too: for both of these poets, there's music in what the voice can do in a poem; it’s a form of elaboration. And it's also a pleasure.
It’s also worth observing that this kind of music-in-poetry is, for both poets—Bunting as a Northumbrian ('northron', as he liked to say) and Kilalea as a South African living in England—a way of being both inside and outside a culture, as Peter Quartermain once put it. The poet, he says, 'is both outside and inside the culture / the koiné at the same time, using what he subverts, subverting what he uses. But it is not an ironic relationship, and his linguistic, syntactic and formal stance is not finally satiric. It is compositional.' It makes sense that poets resist interpretation, to some extent, that they are reluctant, as Bunting memorably put it, to devolve 'so much useless information upon my reader.'
It’s not really much work to seek out information that can inform, so to speak, a poem.
But in the end, maybe Kilalea is right: working at the poem really won't help you that much, once the words begin to swim, as in they do in the very best poems we can find.