Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Snapshots (I)"

Troopers dead in a trench and a river of rats

Topers dead in a bar and a flood of reflections

Lovers dead in a bed and a shift of maggots

Snipers dead in the trees and a cowl of crows

Travellers dead on the bridge and a gaggle of gawpers

Oldsters dead on a porch and downpour of flies

Deserters dead in a pitch and a raft of chiggers

Foragers dead in a field and a jostle of foxes

Children dead at their desks and a month of Sundays

By David Harsent
(from his 2005 Forward prize-winning collection, Legion)

David Harsent, the British poet who’d won last year’s Forward award for the best poetry collection, based his collection Legion on some unspecified war zone. But as he’s translated Goran Simic, a Bosnian poet, and he was one of the editors of an anthology of British and Irish poems commissioned by the Sarajevo Writers' Union, one can conjecture, even if he never admits this outright, he probably would have had the Bosnian conflict in mind when he wrote those poems.

Snapshots (I) is made up, deceptively simply, of just phrases, each its own line and its own stanza. Basically the lines are a listing of images, or snapshots, as the title tells you. The numeral in the brackets also indicates this poem is the first of a series, actually a pair, the second one being II.

The overall composition is very tight, with no loose ends; every thing and every word is accounted for. The syntactical construction is constant: noun group with adjectival modifier and prepositional modifier; a conjunction; and a noun phrase with a similar prepositional modifier. There is not a single punctuation to set the phrases apart. This is done by line spacings instead. There is not a single run-on or enjambment, just very strong end-stops. There is also not a single verb; rightly so, as the words in each line are a linguistic translation of a captured – stilled - instance in a photograph.

Of images the poem is, no doubt, about, and because of the graphic quality of each image, it can lean some ways towards imagist poetry. Another image evoked from the line arrangements is rows of headstones or graves, and the consistency of construction is so very precise and regular, it has an almost, dare I say, a military precision. Interesting that Harsent named this piece Snapshots, as if the images have been shot by casual photographers or amateurs – does this tell you anything?

Another constant here is the word “dead”. It is repeated at every line, and as it is read with a stress or a beat, it almost seems like someone reading out from a list of people who’d been killed – which it is, here. Also, the heavy beat upon the repetitions gives a sensation of some death knell. And a slow and resounding one at that. The separating of the lines into one-line stanzas make you pause at their endings for a space longer, the strong end-stops helping in this, as well.

The division of the two noun groups in a line by a conjunction is important here. The objects – the troopers, lovers, snipers, children – on the left of “and” are all dead – nothing moving. On the right of “and”, though, you have movement. But the actual objects moving are not at the head of the noun group: river of rats; shift of maggots; downpour of flies; jostle of foxes. The movements themselves are taking precedence over the objects which are moving.

This is significant when you read up to end of the last line, the last stanza. In “the month of Sundays”, Harsent means for us to feel that with the death of the children, everything is stilled – nothing is moving. For some people Sunday is a day of rest, a day in which you don’t do any work, or anything for that matter. God created the world and rested on one day, Sunday.

What would anybody’s life be like if he is living day to day as if “everyday is like Sunday.” I’m actually quoting this phrase from the lyrics of Morrissey’s Everyday is like Sunday. He says “Everyday is like Sunday/ Everyday is silent and grey”. And, like Harsent writing about war, destruction and death here, Morrissey, later in the song, sings about grey ash falling on one’s hands and face after a nuclear bomb explosion.

Can you imagine every day of the month a “silent and grey” Sunday, with no sound, no activity, at least, not from living beings?

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Blogger dreameridiot said...

Thanks Leon for your illumination of the craft and context of this poem. Indeed, as simple as it seems, the poem is carefully constructed. The enumeration through the repetition of its syntactic structure, coupled with the leaden-stress on 'dead' gives this poem its darkness.

Although army personnels liketroppers and snipers are mentioned, the peom also includes and sandwiches in between ordinary people, like the local drunkards, lovers and travellers in the counting of the dead, giving it a partly haunting effect. The conjoining of different people with rats, maggots and crows which appear in swamp makes it darker still with the suggestion of the prevalance of death, rather than life.

For me, the most haunting of all these images come at the end, of children dead at their desks... nothing is more terrible than children whose innocence and promise of life is so abruptly cut short...but, indeed this is what happens in times of strife and war, whether we acknowledge it or not. At this point, I am reminded about the Beslan school massacre in Russia - too horrifying for words.

The responsibility then falls on us, to combat not just war mongers, but equally importantly, the prophets of hate and ideologues of intolerance in our world and our own society here, least they stoke the flames of 'war'.

11:55 PM, May 30, 2006  
Blogger dreameridiot said...

To other shy commenters (esp fellow M'sians),

Hope to see you commenting too, if this poem moves/ strikes you. Write anything...about the poem or the 'message' it appears to give, or agree/disagree with the observations made. I apologise if I might have written too long, I sometimes tend to do so. :)

12:00 AM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

leon - this poem is so powerful i want to buy the book. thanks once again for introducing a new poet to me. actually i am becoming painfully aware of the gaps in my own poetry reading and am going to have to seriously begin to address them ...

the poem has almost a nursery-rhyme like quality to it with all the repetitions, which makes the subject-matter even more horrible ...

you're right about this being like a series of pictures - the kind of thing we'd see in a magazine like "time" or "newsweek" that brings such horrors right up close to us - we look at such scenes with curiosity, but we're detached from it all too - how could we allow ourselves to care for all the horror we see?

but there is movement - of foxes, maggots, flies (and don't you almost hear the buzz) ... at least in all the images except the last where the kids are left in absolute stillness

i love those collective nouns "a jostle of foxes" etc. the metaphors surprise

i think "a month of sundays" comes from the expression "never in a month of sundays" ... we say that for things we think will never happen, things that are impossible

we think that horrors like this will never happen ... but they do

the poem reminds me of waht happened to my grandfather in world war 1 - he was fighting in france and during one battle wandered into a church where a whole village of french people had taken shelter - he found everyone slaughterd - he told my grandmother about it once, but was never able to speak of it again and grew more distant, more morose

but i digress ... leon you've done a wonderful job of analysing the poem

8:16 PM, June 01, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Are you reading each line this way?

Troopers dead *pause* in a trench *pause* and a river of rats

Maybe I am reading this poem differently from you, and it is making a lot of difference on how I approach this poem.

I read this poem with a pause after the first word, and then accelerating through the rest of the line, pausing a little while before the second part i.e.:

Troopers *pause* dead in a trench *pause* and a river of rats

Instead of stressing on the word 'dead', I am rushing through it, going from phrase to phrase. The first thing I noticed when reading the discussion is that I didn't notice the 'death knell' you both mentioned, nor does the poem feel ponderous. The effect, for me, is like a gun cocking in readiness, and then let off with a rat-tat-tat.

Each line, devoid of punctuation, seems to be full of energy and I can see why there are no period marks to mark the end of the line -- drawing out the 's' sounds at the end of each line in a hiss, it is like the spent energy of the line expanding, or perhaps a sound-image of a hot bullet burning through flesh.

Reading it this way seems to help prompt the imagery that each line of this poem suggests. In the fourth line, for instance, it lets me first build an image of 'lovers' and while I (silently) ask, "what of them?" in the space of a pause, I get the answer, "dead in a bed." And as that image settles, I am fed another image of "and a shift of maggots" -- here I don't see a movement of maggots, but I see instead they are clothed with maggots (from the other meaning of the word 'shift' meaning a loose dress or undergarment).

Interestingly, Leon touches on the contrast of stillness/movement on either side of the conjunction 'and'. Which is true, but I didn't see it that way at first. Instead, I saw three overlaid images: the object; its condition ('dead') and its position; and then, how they are covered in death, not with white sheets, but rats, glass, maggots, etc.

But when we reach the final line, "a month on Sundays", Leon's analysis works very well indeed -- a month of Sundays, when everything is still.

(On my part, I was immediately reminded of U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday, which is also a song about war, and more obvious to me but doesn't really work to inform the poem like Morrissey's does.)

My point is, independent of and without the benefit of Leon's insight, I arrived at a different conclusion to the poem. The children dead at their desks ... what covers them? A month of absence and silence (in the school) -- they are untouched.

12:02 AM, June 02, 2006  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Sharon, you must have posted your comment while I was writing mine.

Isn't it true that you can almost hear the buzzing of the flies? -- I think it's because of the 's' endings.

"never in a month of Sundays". Yes, I have heard that saying -- it also gives a different experience of the poem, when you keep that in mind.

12:06 AM, June 02, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sharon, I think you can still get Legion from Kino: 2 copies left on the shelves, last I was there. (Now, people, don't rush there; please leave a copy for Sharon!)

If you think this poem is disturbing, you'd find some of the others just as moving, or shocking; about soldiers coming upon a town with dead lying all around; even a point-of-view from a sniper.

You could be right about the "month of Sunday" taken from an expression about things happening which you don't expect to.

Machinist, I'm actually reading the way you have the first time, with a heavy beat on "dead".

And if one reads as you have done the other way, yes, you would pass over the death knell effect, and come up with a different one.

Your interpretations, when supported like that, actually work just as well.

9:38 AM, June 02, 2006  

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