Jane Draycott: the Alchemy of Light

There’s a lovely phrase in Jane Draycott’s “An Alchemy” referring to the sun’s creation of “an alternative world / inscribed in the curvings of light”. Throughout The Night Tree,Draycott herself is the great alchemist of perception, using metaphor and simile not simply to express the world but to refract and bend it into strange shapes. To an unusual extent she insists on the unlikeness of the two poles of her comparisons, and this is what gives so many of her metaphors, similes and conceits both their peculiar thrill and their unusual imaginative resilience. Of course figurative speech always depends on a tension between likeness and unlikeness. However, I feel that with metaphors and similes generally the main thrust of the energy works in the direction of imaginative fusion. A becomes B, or becomes how we see and feel B in our imaginations as we read. Essentially the element of unlikeness is no more than the resistance that allows this movement. But in many of Draycott’s poems the things being compared are not only suggested by but also defined against each other, given sharper life by the way they spring apart in our minds. For example, in “The Cupboard”, in which she compares a pair of shoes in a cupboard to a pair of ears listening out for misfortune, the oddity of comparing shoes to ears strikes us as much as the aptness. Draycott insists on this oddity in the last two lines, where she makes the metaphorical and literal jar against each other in a way that is both complexly funny and brilliantly animating:

She knows that in the night the shoes are listening
for warning of the day she has to run.

Some of these ideas are at least obliquely relevant to a poem I’d like to discuss in detail, though in many ways it is a more ethereal and elusive piece than either “An Alchemy” or “The Cupboard”:

                    No. 3 from Uses for the Thames

Feather!’ cried the Sheep…
                                    Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

The test was to dip
the needles into the dark
of the swallowing mirror

and by pulling to row
the weight of your own small self
through the silvery jam of its surface

trailing behind in your passing
your very own tale, knitted
extempore from light

and then to lift them,
feathered, ready for flight.

My impression is that this poem is rooted in private emotions whose causes are not revealed to the reader. Its approach to us is paradoxical and difficult to define but crucial to its effect. Its intimacy of tone and address makes us feel that we know what is being talked about, even though in obvious senses we don’t. This intimacy of tone opens us to the poem. At the same time, the sense that we are not really the “you” being spoken to and don’t really know what is being spoken about makes us listen alertly for clues. In different ways both sides of the paradox sharpen our attentiveness.

So what feelings and ideas are we being attentive to? In this delicately evocative poem it is difficult to separate different aspects of the sensations it gives us.

Firstly there is the sensation given by the tone: the impression of being spoken to very gently, with sympathy and understanding, as someone who has successfully undergone a difficult ordeal. Created both by what is said and by the delicacy and precision of the phonetic and rhythmic articulation, this impression is received as a direct sensation which I suppose one either has or doesn’t have. If one has it, it is a pleasure and feels like an act of human communication in itself. Moreover, and crucially, this tone and the assured way in which the poem develops formally give shape and definition to what is in other ways an elusive, ambiguous, paradoxical shimmering of suggestions.

Then there are the images. Key elements come from a chapter in Through the Looking-glass where Alice is rowing a sheep who knits with more and more needles and tells her to feather her oars or she’ll catch a crab. More broadly, the description of the water as “the swallowing mirror” must come from the whole idea of Alice’s passage through the looking-glass, and the tale perhaps refers to the Mouse’s tale in Alice in Wonderland. But the delight, I think, is in seeing how the imaginative life Draycott gives to these elements has become something completely new. Mystery and paradox open the way to a teeming play of suggestions, some fleeting, some more sustained. The sparking of details will be different for every reader. Part of the pleasure of the poem is in the shifting adjustments, the gradual consolidation of main lines of suggestion. For example, the sequence test, dip, needles for me creates a transient image of a petri dish, though with dark the main current of associations changes direction. The consolidation of the boating image is helped by the way the metre of the first four lines, with two strong stresses per line, suggests the rhythm and effort of rowing. But here too there are split perspectives. This rhythmic effect and the way it puts the effort of the rowing into your own vocal system makes you see and feel the rowing not just in close-up but as a participant. At the same time, the needle image makes you look down on the boat from a great distance and see it shrunk to something as tiny as a water beetle. Contradictions between ideas forcibly yoked together (oars and needles, wool and light, the yieldingness of water and the solidity of mirrors, mirrors as impenetrable and mirrors as swallowing, etc) create a sense of dreamlike absurdity but also that tension between similarity and dissimilarity that heightens attention to the uniqueness of each pole of the comparison. And of course both contradictory terms of the paradoxes may have their own truth. Water is both insubstantial enough for us to pass through it and solid enough to support our boats and to be a fulcrum for oars as we lever the boats forward.

As I said, the poem teems with suggestions. Trying to list them would be ridiculous. In terms of overall effect, apart from what I’ve said already, my strongest sense is of a profound ambiguity or tension of feeling. On the one hand there are strong hints of menace and fear, perhaps starting with the very idea of a test. The word “needles” carries scary associations even if the main sense is of needles for knitting. “The dark / of the swallowing mirror” can seem highly threatening. One can feel the needles as like probes piercing the lit skin of the living world to discover death in the darkness below. On the other hand there is the light. Perhaps the central opposition of the poem focuses on the idea of “the swallowing mirror” that both annihilates and reflects the self. As I read the poem, the strongest sense is of darkness giving way to light, of a celebration of achievement, perhaps of living itself as a miraculous acceptance and outfacing of death, knitting itself out of something as insubstantial as light, balancing on the edge between water and air. It may be narrowing things too much to say so, but I have a strong impression of a particular person (real or imagined) being spoken to after their death. On this reading, the achievement celebrated and the story they trail in their wake is the life they have lived and the memory it leaves. The celebration is tinged with pathos because the achievement is transient, the story a dissolving wake, and because the effortfully maintained “self” was only “small” (and seems the more so by the way “your own” carries a hint of an address to a child). Moreover, the shift to light is equivocal. On the one hand, a poet as allusive as Draycott will certainly be aware how the end of her poem catches light from the ending of Marvell’s “The Garden”, which imagines the soul as a bird that sits on a branch

And till prepared for longer flight
Waves in its plumes the various light.

This could bring in religious ideas about life after death. At the same time, the idea of “flight” in the sense of “attempted escape” is evoked if we  remember how ‘The Cupboard’ imagines shoes as ears listening for the moment when their owner will have to run away.

This may seem too earnest . Much of the beauty of the poem is in its lightness of touch. As it shimmers in our hands, all these ideas are wrapped in the suggestion that the whole thing is only a playful spinning of ideas out of Lewis Carroll, reaching its climax in the image of the feathered oars becoming wings. Beyond particular allusions, it is in this wonderful combination of clarity with elusiveness, poignancy with wit, this ability to touch on deep human feelings with tact and grace that Draycott is most like Marvell.

(Though there’s no particular room for it in my argument, I must say how much I love the phrase “silvery jam”, partly for its phonetic beauty, partly for the sheer audacity of “jam” (in any sense) in this poem’s connotative fields, and partly because of how beautifully the idea of jam (to spread on bread) does fit in with hints of address to a child.)

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