In Kathmandu

The ABC recently aired a story about “paper orphans” in Nepal.  These are children who are orphans only on paper, their status “invented” by orphanages to attract money, or sponsors, from wealthy countries like Australia.  According to the ABC, Australians are “still funding and volunteering at orphanages, unwittingly perpetuating a multi-billion-dollar global industry that exploits children for profit.” 

I know something of this first-hand. 

Kathmandu was my first overseas destination. I travelled there in May, 2004.  My partner at the time, S, had already been there for a couple of months, and this was her second time in Nepal.  She’d fallen in love with the place and wanted to go back and do some work in the orphanages.  She had one in particular in mind and this was where she went when she returned.  While she was there I was busy working in a factory.  I’d graduated from university at the beginning of the year and took the factory job because I needed the money to travel.  I wanted nothing else than to see S again in Kathmandu and help her in whatever way I could.  And I was thrilled to be going overseas.

During my first few days in the city, reading the Kathmandu newspapers, I learned a great deal of the political situation at the time.  In fact, I was shocked to discover that for the last seven or eight years there had been a civil war.  More than ten thousand people had died in this conflict. There were political insurgencies, communities broken apart, and people fleeing their homes.  I read of sixty teachers being abducted from schools in the district of Udayapur, in the east, and there were stories of children being taken by insurgent Maoist groups and trained in the ways of a “People’s War” against the urban bureaucrats.  

This conflict was chiefly between the Maoists, who wanted a republican state, and the King and his royal army.  Out in the streets I heard that Maoists were targeting trekkers for money.  Later, when S and I were in Pokhara, the locals denied this. Maoists were bad for business, of course. But all the same, the stories were getting through. And the following year, by the time S and I were gone, the political situation would become much worse.  There would be a coup.  Not until 2008, with the establishment of a secular republic and the Maoists now part of the political process, would there be a peaceful resolution, and an end to the world’s only Hindu monarchy.

S had been doing some good work at the orphanage, which was located in Banasthal, a district in Kathmandu where the Bhachaa river runs. When I arrived the river was little more than a canal of filthy water and littered with garbage.

S had taken me there to meet the children and the two women running the place.  There were other people behind the scenes but I could never figure out who was who.  S and her friends, other tourists, one a Swiss national doing research for a PhD on international relations, knew far more about the place than I did, or ever would. 

At the orphanage I saw how S was already quite attached to one of the children.  Her name was Geeta. From overhearing conversations I discovered that Geeta was being mistreated and was sick.  She had a terrible cough.  It was sickening to have to listen to it.  But Geeta had never been taken to the doctor.  There was always a lot going on behind the scenes.  S and her friends were constantly talking about the orphanage, making plans, coming up with ideas.  I was on the outside, on the edge of all this.  It was difficult for me to know what was happening between S and her friends and the orphanage.  Nonetheless, I tried to keep up and trusted S.  I supported her.  I was in love with her. 

Spending time with many of the children at the orphanage was a joy – “Sir sir, have a sweet dream” they would say when I waved goodbye in the evenings.  One day S revealed that she was planning to relocate Geeta to another orphanage.  But first we’d have to take her to the hospital for tests. We were all so worried for her health.

After a few long, exhausting days at the hospital, we finally received a diagnosis for Geeta.  She was very sick and had tuberculosis and other related complications.  The doctor who gave us this news was quite angry.  Why hadn’t she been brought in for treatment sooner? 

Over the next few weeks Geeta received care at the hospital.  S stayed with her overnight.  I would arrive in the morning and spend the day.  When it was time to leave we all went to the new orphanage in Thankot, a village just beyond the city to the west.

The building in Thankot where the orphanage was located

I don’t know how long we were there at Thankot, how much time we spent with Geeta.  But I do know that S and Geeta were inseparable.  I do know that they loved each other.  I do know that Geeta was happy and smiling and spoke more than ever before.  S was like a mother to her.  It worried me, actually, how attached to Geeta she’d become, but sometimes that just can’t be helped. 

One day I travelled south by bus to Chitwan with M, the Swiss national, while S stayed behind to spend as much time as possible with Geeta.  In Chitwan the river was flooded and the national park was closed.  The rain didn’t let up.  During the day there was a rhino on the loose and at night the rain got heavier and louder.  The heat was sticky and oppressive.  At one o’clock in the morning I was awoken by the hotel manager and told to leave the room because the floodwaters were so high.  We waded out into the yard and slept on kitchen tables.  The day we left we rode elephants to the bus shelter.

Back in Thankot, time passed quickly. How long we were there before we had to leave and fly back to Australia, I don’t know. It wasn’t long enough. Leaving was crushing for S. Saying goodbye was difficult and very sad. And then a month or so later, when I was in Japan alone, my mobile phone rang.  It was S. Geeta had died.  It was devastating news. The date was August 4.

S and I never knew if we would have a future.  I went to Japan to teach and this had already been arranged before I went to Nepal.  I was employed by the government to teach in a public high school.  I’d already started my job when this terrible news came through.  Before all this I didn’t know if S was ever going to come to Japan to be with me.  It was all uncertain. I suppose I was ready to accept that it might have been over between us.

But then Geeta died and S was in Japan and in my apartment.  She loved Geeta and Geeta had loved S.  We remembered Geeta’s smile.  I knew S had done the right thing in finding a new home for her.  Geeta was happy.  I knew the love was real for her. 

But who was she?  The whole time I never knew.  I don’t think anyone did. I never heard her past being talked about, only that she might have come from a village in the far east of the country, that one day she got on a bus, the wrong bus, and ended up in the city wandering the streets and was later taken in by the orphanage.  That’s what I heard, but over the years since, after reading much about Nepal in books and newspapers and watching news reports such as the one on the ABC, I don’t know what to believe.  It seems to matter and I still think of her because the poor girl never had a chance to say who she was in this world, never had a chance to speak her own truth.  After everything, the only thing I do know was her smile, and the love between her and S.  That was real.  That was true.

In keeping with customary funeral rites, Geeta’s body was cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River at an open temple in the Hindu Pashupatinath.  Orange cloth, her favourite teddy, marigolds — these were all prepared and went up in flames with her. When it was over, when the smoke was gone, her ashes from the pyre would have been swept into the river and the concrete pillar on which she had lain washed clean. Soon after, another body would have been placed on the pillar. And then another.  More ceremonies would have been held, more pyres lit.  More smoke, more ashes, more washing the pillar clean.

Cultural politics and historical fiction

Several years ago there was an article in The New York Times that caught my interest.  The article was about Olly Neal, a high-school kid in the late 1950s who stole a book from the library because he liked the racy cover. Neal was an ‘at-risk’ kid.  He was poor and black and had an attitude.  His father was a farmer.  The house had no electricity and Olly Neal was one of thirteen children. 

Olly had stolen a novel by Frank Yerby, a black writer.  He finished the book.  Then he went back and stole another, again by Yerby.  This happened another two times.  Four novels in total, all stolen and all by Yerby.  Olly had caught the reading bug.  As the article in the Times describes, this probably changed the course of his life.  He eventually went to college and studied law.  By the 1990s, now in his early fifties, Olly Neal had become a judge.

What’s even more wonderful about this story is that Neal’s English teacher, Mildred Grady, knew all along that Olly had stolen that first book, but she kept quiet and instead sought out more books by Yerby, at her own expense, to put on the library shelf so her student could steal them.  What a sweetly covert system of encouragement, of reaching through to a vulnerable kid!

And who was Frank Yerby? 

His name is not really heard of today, but Frank Yerby (1916-1991) wrote more than thirty novels, and was acclaimed for the meticulous research of his historical fictions. Yerby protested vociferously against US racism and left the US in the 1950s for France and then Madrid, where he lived for the next thirty-five years. 

In 1971 Yerby published one of his most well-known books, an historical novel called The Man from Dahomey, which is about the slave trade in early nineteenth-century Dahomey (now Benin, in West Africa).  It’s a book that goes to great lengths to explore the social conscience of its characters and assert a cultural politics of history, race and power.

It’s often said, pragmatically, that historical fiction is useful for cultural politics because it can evoke empathy for the injustices of the past.  As literature, historical fictions can, in the words of WG Sebald, “attempt restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” David Malouf has also claimed the “superior powers of empathy and historical understanding” of historical fictions.  He means ‘superior’ to strictly factual non-fiction writing.  As Malouf argues,

our only way of grasping our history –– and by history I really mean what has happened to us, and what determines what we are now and where we are now –– the only way of really coming to terms with that is by people’s entering into it in their imagination, not by the world of facts, but by being there.  And the only thing really which puts you there in that kind of way is fiction. … It’s when you have actually been there and become a character again in that world.

Both Malouf and Sebald appeal to the category of experience in the belief that fiction gives us the “truth” of history.  For Sebald, fiction restores those experiences of the past which have been lost to the onward rush of progress.  For Malouf, the truths of fiction are the truths of imagining more empathetic relations between the present and the past. 

Similarly, Kate Grenville, author of The Secret River (2005), an historical novel about early nineteenth-century settler encounters with Australian Aborigines, and more recently, A Room Made of Leaves (2020), argues for the empathies of historical fictions.  Of the The Secret River she’s said that it’s “probably as close as we are going to get to what it was actually like.”  And in an interview with Ramona Koval on ABC radio, responding to Koval’s question of where she would position her book in relation to debates over Australian history and the colonial past, Grenville said that her book

is up on a ladder, looking down at the history wars. … [A] novelist can stand up on a stepladder and look down at this, outside the fray, and say there is another way to understand it. … The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. Basically to think, well, what would I have done in that situation, and what sort of a person would that make me?

For historians, these claims are a little frightening because they obscure what should be a clear line dividing the historian’s role from that of the novelist’s.  Historian Mark McKenna has argued that Grenville promotes the “rise of the novelist as historian, of fiction as history,” which encourages a decline in critical history and an ascendance of historical novels as “dream histories.”  Likewise, in The History Question Inga Clendinnen points out that the crucial point of difference here — one that shouldn’t be obscured — is between the aesthetic purpose of the novelist and the moral purpose of the historian.  

But what if a novelist writes with a moral purpose over and above that of an aesthetic one?  And how can we tell if an historical novel is motivated not by aesthetics but by a moral relationship to the past? 

We can begin to answer these questions by looking at Yerby’s The Man from Dahomey.  The book appeared in the wake of the Black American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and in a note to the reader Yerby states that he wants his novel “to correct … the Anglo-Saxon reader’s historical perspective.”  He does this by showing how North American slavery destroyed a high and admirable African culture and reduced “a proud, industrious, warlike people … to the state of tortured, neurotic, self-hating caricatures of humanity.”

© CRA-terre – Ensag – Thierry Joffroy

The Man from Dahomey tells the story of Nyasanu, the son of Gbenu, a well-respected African chief.  It traces Nyasanu’s relationship with his family, particularly the affection between Nyasanu and his father, and his marriages to six wives.  As as a chief’s son, we see the importance of Nyasanu’s social position as well as Dahomean vices, like the renaming of wives.  But after suffering a fall from grace for taking revenge on the man who sleeps with his wife, Nyasanu is sent into exile and later transported to North America.  “He had been a man, almost a prince,” writes Yerby.  “Now he was a thing.  A slave.”

In Yerby’s novel, Dahomey is a complex society of marriage rites, of languages and religious customs unique to particular tribes, and of the power struggles between the ruler, King Gezo, and his people.  A lot of research went into this.  Yerby’s book is rich in anthropological content, drawing comprehensively from key sources such as Melville J. Herskovits’s two-volume, Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom (1938).

If there is a formal, or aesthetic, weakness in the novel it’s the way in which anthropological explanations endlessly accompany dialogue and plot development.  But it’s clear these explanations serve a political purpose rather than a strictly artistic one, informing the reader about the sophisticated realities of early nineteenth-century Dahomean life.  

It’s interesting to compare Yerby’s novel with another work that’s also about the slave trade in Dahomey in the early 1800s.  Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), tells the story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, Chatwin’s fictional counterpart to the historical Francisco Felix de Souza (1760-1849), a West African slave trader from Bahia, Brazil. 

In the novel, da Silva leaves a desolate childhood and a life of aimless wandering in Bahia and sails empty-handed to Ouidah.  He takes command of an abandoned Portuguese fort but is soon arrested by the King of Dahomey.  The King’s brother helps da Silva escape and in turn da Silva helps stage a coup.  Da Silva is rewarded for his efforts by being appointed the new King’s viceroy with dominion over the sale of slaves.  But his situation worsens and da Silva is eventually stripped of his wealth and entitlements, dying a ruined man.

Chatwin’s book divided critics.  Some saw it as a triumph of style over substance, while others dismissed it for lacking humanity and not taking a moral stand on the slave trade.  Bernadine Evaristo, winner of the Booker prize in 2019, recently wrote about it.  “By rights,” she said,

I should really hate this rather rococo novella, because its obsession with the ugly side of humanity and its brutal depiction of Africans is almost without redemption. Instead, I find myself swooning at its excesses, and rereading it every time I start writing a new book, in the hope that some of its genius will rub off on me.

Chatwin’s novel is a stylistic marvel.  Ornate, short, brisk and baroque, clever and dazzling, it’s straight out of the Flaubertian school of writing – aesthetically detached, striving for artistic purity.  Actually, as an historical fiction, The Viceroy of Ouidah has more in common with Flaubert’s Salammbo than Yerby’s novel (the literary historian Georg Lukacs wrote that Salammbo is the result of Flaubert’s “programmatic non-partisanship.”  We could say the same of Chatwin’s book.)

But where does that leave us? 

Yerby’s novel may not be the best of its kind, but it contains a people’s history of Dahomey and inscribes a form of moral and political reclamation.  Of course, you could always read West African historians themselves, or if you have to, go back to Herskovits or even to Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer, whose mission journal of Dahomey recounts his time spent with King Gezo in 1849 and 1850. 

And there’s Cameron Monroe’s 2014 book, The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey, which features historical, archaeological and ethnographic sources to investigate the political order of Dahomey during the Atlantic Era.

But Yerby’s novel carries you off into the moral story of Nyasanu.  Something Olly Neal might have felt when first reading those earlier books of Yerby’s, books that came into his life at the right time, and for the right reasons.

On the couch: Three Australian poems

I’m going to look at three short Australian poems.  Despite each of them being about something or having a readily identifiable subject matter (a train journey, middle age, a trip away to an old estate), I’ll look at them for how they can give us insight into the nature of artistic inspiration and creativity or the process leading to the poem’s creation. Of course, every strong poem is probably its own record of the inspiration and creativity that brought it into being.  But how?

‘The Night-Ride’, by Kenneth Slessor

In ‘The Night-Ride’ the poet is travelling at night by train across the Australian continent and has just arrived at a station town.

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;

Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,

Pull up the blind, blink out — all sounds are drugged;

The slow blowing of passengers asleep;

Engines yawning; water in heavy drips;

Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,

One moment in the window, hooked over bags;

Hurrying, unknown faces — boxes with strange labels —

All groping clumsily to mysterious ends,

Out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates.

Their echoes die.  The dark train shakes and plunges;

Bells cry out; the night-ride starts again.

Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,

Pale, windy fields.  The old roar and knock of the rails

Melts in dull fury.  Pull down the blind, Sleep.  Sleep.

Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.

Gaslight and milk-cans.  Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Slessor’s poem is a simile for artistic inspiration.  A poem comes like a journey by train at night when you wake suddenly at the station and see through the window for a brief moment on the platform certain figures and objects in the gaslight.  And to take this idea further, the figures and objects are like the words, or the language, that come to you in a moment of poetic revelation.  But then the train begins again and the station, or the moment of insight, is gone.  There is nothing but grey emptiness, and you recall little of the artistry that had so intensely possessed you. 

Critics have read ‘The Night-Ride’ as one of Slessor’s statements on city versus bush.  Slessor had a disdain for the emptiness outside of cities, especially outside of Sydney.  For Slessor, Sydney was full of poetry and the world outside it was not.  There was a certain charm and magic about Sydney and his poems are full of images of the city.  In ‘The Night-Ride’, moving out of the station into the emptiness of the bush is certainly depicted as a move away from civilisation and into tedium and barrenness.  Critics have also noted the imagery of darkness and light that pervades the poem: the light of the station; the darkness of the outback, or the bush.  I think, however, that this is Slessor’s great poem on the inner life, on how poems get made out of the interaction between that inner life and the poet’s observations of the ‘outside’ world.  Indeed, if there is any point to the oppositions which critics have noted in the poem, apart from establishing poetic contraries, then it is surely the interaction between them which takes place within the observer, the poet observer.

In Canto XIV of Don Juan, Byron writes:

                                    a bard must meet

     All difficulties, whether great or small,

          To spoil his undertaking or complete,

     And work away like spirit upon matter,

     Embarrass’d somewhat both with fire and water

Great and small; spirit and matter; fire and water; spoiled or complete; pride and embarrassment — all of Byron’s pairs of opposites are in Slessor’s poem, either explicitly or implicitly.  (Pride could be the poet’s pride of completion: ‘It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from / when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty’, writes Czeslaw Milosz in ‘Ars Poetica’; embarrassment for not being able to recall anything of significance of Rapptown; sleep being spoiled, and so on.  The other opposites are of course more obvious.)  But after the grand fact of inspiration they seem mere elements of composition.  It’s as though the objects of the ‘outside’ world are nothing other than the inner consciousness of the poet, as though the poem is trying to show how what one sees is contained within one’s consciousness — that while these objects and people and events may have a material existence independent from oneself, they are at the same time inseparable from one’s consciousness and active awareness of them.  I am thus reminded here of Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘A Dream of Trains’: ‘I was in my seat and the train / was running through my body, / breaking down my frontiers.’  And Slessor’s punctuation seems to embody these shifting states of consciousness.  The first half of the poem is a catalogue of observations punctuated by semi-colons and long dashes, which echo the long pauses or breaks in the observer’s half-awake state; while the second half is mostly commas, signalling a more fluid awareness ruminating on what has suddenly appeared.

But the key experience underpinning this poem is the fleeting nature of poetic consciousness.  There is a revelatory breach in awareness at the station — there is an illumination.  But when ‘the night-ride starts again’ it’s as though time had stopped and life has suddenly resumed (the station thus becomes a metaphor for time standing still, at least according to the poet’s consciousness).  The poem therefore seeks a kind of philosophy on the spontaneous or instantaneous moment, which for the poet is also one of creative inspiration.  ‘The Night-Ride’ is about the pure products of the imagination as they emerge seemingly out of an illumination to possess the poet before taking their leave, before their echoes die, after which the observer is then left to recall and compose.  Indeed, the last words of the poem — ‘Of Rapptown I recall nothing else’ — are a kind of admission that one cannot remember how a poem came into being.  Perhaps one or two objects (a few words at most) are remembered for getting what might become a poem going, but afterwards, the initial experience is a blur and composition must then necessarily turn to motifs of darkness and light, city and country, ‘mysterious ends’ and ‘private fates’ in order to record the inspiration and give it poetic form.

‘Middle Age’, by John Forbes

‘a frozen turquoise statue of options’

                                    sits on the shelf

                           almost invisible now

under the sand blasted pretence

of your day-to-day routines, its only use

to keep those bits of paper

that arrive through the mail

from getting lost or blowing away.

Where’s the present tense

                           now that we really need it?

Where’s the jungle?  You are as sane

as absolutely crystal clear TV reception

can make you, as if Sisyphus

exchanged his rock for a frisbee

& had to learn

all sorts of hand signals overnight

                           each one meaning

a different thing had gone wrong somewhere

& turquoise was just

the colour of the morning sky

                           you barely glimpse

as he rushes out to play.

What time is more ironical than that of middle age, when life may not have turned out as you had once expected, or would have liked?  Certainly not old age, which is too close to death; nor youth, when you’re too busy doing all the things you think you should be doing.  Middle age is when true reflection kicks in, when you begin to look back on your life.

In ‘Middle Age’ there is a sense of what has been.  When Forbes writes, somewhat perplexingly, ‘Where’s the jungle?’, we may well ask, What the hell does that mean?  In an earlier poem from the 1970s called ‘Admonitions’ (‘Middle Age’ was written in the 1990s) we read, ‘When you’re raining in my heart it’s gorillas’.  The jungle in the later poem might then refer to the wild (indeed, romantic) feelings of the heart which are no longer alive or teeming within.

And yet before all this we encounter the line, ‘Where’s the present tense / now that we really need it?’  In middle age the past tense is too much with you, is too domineering, and as the poem seems to suggest, you begin to feel the weighty Sisyphean struggles of life, the daily toil.  The ‘boulder’ now feels heavier than it ever did; or you simply become aware for the first time that that is what you’re doing, and have been doing for quite some time now. 

But in the poem, Sisyphus exchanges his rock for a frisbee.  We can read this as Forbes saying that life can change from one state to another quite quickly and dramatically.  But this is also, I think, a statement about the kind of poem that wants to say something about life, the kind of poem Forbes doesn’t want to write, and perhaps (thankfully) cannot write.  It’s as though, on the one hand, there’s a type of poem that is like (or about) pushing the boulder — a heavy, weighty, ‘grown-up’ metaphysical thing that discloses personal struggle; while on the other hand, there’s a poem that’s like abandoning the rock (if that’s possible, yet Forbes’s poem rather whimsically implies that it is, at least in poetry) to become something much lighter, inconsequential and playful, where certain tricks and signals can be learned for different gestures of flight.  So ‘Middle Age’ suggests that one source of poetic creativity and inspiration is a moving away from heavy, weighty, earnest kinds of poems to a more ironic and playful style of writing. 

For Forbes, the writing of poetry is an act of vacating or decamping from your own fraught situation as you see it.  Creating a poem is a letting go: a letting go of the idea that your writing should lay claim to a greater stake of your life.  Instead, you should rush out to play — or go on your nerve, as the New York poet Frank O’Hara famously described his method of composition — and grab what you can along the way.  And like Slessor, this is very much a form of spontaneity, without which, we may surmise, there is no poetry.

‘Shore Acres’, by Sarah Holland-Batt

August, driving from North Bend,

from Empire, we saw how the waves gut

the bluffs until they are pocked, whole

scoops of rock being pawed out by water.

But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;

the water is static as land, and stripes

of foam bone its slate like a corset.

We are here for the end of movement.

You stay to watch the ocean.  I go back

to the Japanese garden.  I only want to see

stillness where I expect it, the sombre willow,

the colossal Monterey pine; I sit,

making myself limestone and basalt,

on the grounds of what was once the summer

house of a pioneer shipbuilder.  Now it is nobody’s

private estate, but the home of a gardener

who pulls yellow roses through the mist

in hedged circles.  I think I am stone

as the arrowheads of pines vanish

into the understory of cloud.  I have stopped

longing for whatever it was I desired

and have given in to the body’s basic need

for rest.  Bare feet, bare face, I wait

at what I imagine to be a shrine’s gate

gathering the kind of force required

to stop loving, as only stone can.

There is a listless mood throughout this poem, a loss of feeling.  There is exhaustion and unease.  A couple is on a trip away to an old estate.  We can surmise theirs has been a busy time prior to this little vacation — ‘We are here for the end of movement’; giving in to ‘the body’s basic need / for rest’.  In fact, the exhaustion is so complete, so total (and this is indeed a poem of totalities) there is no real energy left to desire.  All wants are off the table.  And in a place of peace, beauty and leisure, where one might actually expect wild passionate freedom, there is only a sense of standstill and restraint: ‘the water is static as land, and stripes / of foam bone its slate like a corset’.  It is as though, this poem seems to suggest, there will be no expansion, no more going outwards, but only constriction and a turning inward.

As a figure for loss of feeling, stone is a cliche.  But Holland-Batt gives the trope a naturalistic bent.  The speaker is not only stone but limestone and basalt, so there is indeed something sedimentary going on here.  The poet is wanting to get to the understory, the sedimentary level of what the problem is, of why she feels nothing.  And perhaps one way of doing this is to go as far as possible into the problem.  In other words, become it entirely, go further in feeling nothing so that there is nothing left of yourself (‘gathering the kind of force required / to stop loving’). 

Obviously, inspiration is not forthcoming for the speaker.  And there is degradation, or a scaling down of expectations: what was once a private estate is now home to a gardener.  But what, then, was the inspiration for this poem?  Was it the sombreness, the listlessness, the exhaustion?  Was it the body’s basic need for rest (an epiphany of sorts)?   Was it loss of feeling?  I think this is a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration and how that is so powerfully inseparable from our emotional lives (especially more so for a poet).  The fact that the poet can write a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration testifies to poetry as a renewal of life and a record of Being.  Wittgenstein once said, ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.’  Holland-Batt’s poem may or may not be mystical — though, there is a need in the poem to relinquish all devotional feeling — yet it does present a problem of caught between the how and the simple fact of is.  And it seeks to give inspiration (not to mention loss of inspiration, and the despair that comes from that) some ontological importance.

In a poem by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a similar problem is presented.  The poem is ‘In the Middle of the Road’.

In the middle of the road there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

there was a stone

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event

in the life of my fatigued retinas.

Never should I forget that in the middle of the road

there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget that moment when my poetic powers, when inspiration and creativity, failed me, for words cannot relate what I see in this stone on the road, which is, of course, not only a stone on the road but myself, my whole life tumbling about inside me unable to be expressed, or put into words, the right words.  The poem is only what is right before me.  Nothing more.  And yet, ‘In the Middle of the Road’ strives for some kind of philosophical resonance, some kind of ontological significance, like ‘Shore Acres’ does.

The work of the poet is then to imagine, to imagine a shrine’s gate where there isn’t one, to imagine you are a stone while knowing you are not, to imagine yourself limestone and basalt when obviously you aren’t and never can be (and indeed in this poem the mind or the imagination and the body want to go their own ways, not unlike the couple in the poem).  And yet, these are all instances of becoming something it is impossible to be.  These are, in other words, grossly unrealistic expectations and mere fancies that don’t hold up to rational thought.  Like poetry might be in the mind of the writer who is struggling with writing and wondering what it is all for and whether it is worth it, whether the fancies — the flights of imagining things it is impossible to be — are worth it.  When so much poetry has been written, and continues to be written, sometimes you have to go to the places where you expect the silence, where you might expect the poetry to come.  And yet to do so means no experimentation (though every poem is perhaps a trying out of new ideas and method) and perhaps as well no inspiration, no surprise, nothing unexpected.  But being uninspired (the idea of it at least) may be inspiration enough.  For a writer, loss of inspiration and looking or waiting for inspiration is always the understory of the life, the sedimentary aspect of Being.  And while loss of inspiration may not be what you want to say or what you want to be, this wonderful poem reveals that it’s probably something worth putting into words after all.