Saturday, August 02, 2008


For this new issue of Elarti:2, now out, Amri Rohayat commissioned a few pieces of work from me, one of which is an essay on appreciating poetry. Here's an extract, in which I talked about David Harsent's poem Filofax:

by David Harsent

The entire township, heading north in cars, in trucks, on bikes, on foot,
some with next to nothing, some choosing to cart
(as it might be) armchair, armoire, samovar, black and white
TV, toaster, Filofax, Magimix, ladle, spindle, spinet,
bed and bedding, basin and basinette,
passed (each in clear sight) lynx and wolverine and bobcat,
heading south to the guns and the promise of fresh meat.


Like how Derren made his magic work with specific words placed inside his conversation, David also used a somewhat similar method. However, David’s poem is more structured. He didn’t place relevant or connected words far apart and hoped the reader is able to thread their connections by reading into rhymes or alliteration. In Filofax he clustered some items close to each other, separated by commas, or not, as in one case. This is so in-your-face, that you – or rather, I – see – read - them as individual words and also as related groupings.

Filofax is about an “entire township, heading north”, in the midst of some unnamed war, moving towards safety. With “in cars, in trucks, on bikes, on foot” and no sight of any action word – verb – progress is very, very slow indeed. The refugees are practically not moving at all, encumbered by “armchair, armoire, samovar, black and white/TV, toaster, filofax, Magimix, ladle, spindle, spinet/bed and bedding, basin and bassinette” – some hefty, heavy, and some, practically useless items, probably more sentimental in value.

The reader finally sees a verb, right in the penultimate line, in “passed”. Just as we see all these useless objects being carried, we see with “(each in clear sight)” a holy trinity – God’s will? - of death: “lynx and wolverine and bobcat”. David also wants you to see these three very, very clearly, and very slowly, by not using commas but the “and”s instead.

In the final line of the poem we see the “township” is “heading south”, as if they are moving downwards, towards Hell. Their destruction is already presaged by the three wild animals they “passed”, and also by that verb to imply a passing or an end of something, in this case, life. They are heading towards “the guns and the promise of fresh meat”. David uses the pair of “the” not as just some definite article. The “the”s sound some tom-tom or thuds, like bullets in trajectory or bombs exploding. They also sound these destructions as already known or prefigured.


Do buy a copy (or copies for friends) of Elarti:2 and read the rest of my essay.
Learn more about David Harsent from an earlier posting of mine here.

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Leon, I think you may just have mistaken this bit. It's the wild animals who are headed South to the guns and fresh meat from the carcasses of dead men... Very stark imagery.

The poem I think takes place perhaps in a Balkan war or in some of the Post-Soviet states, as the natural habitat of wolverine, lynx are around that area, and samovar is a heating instrument or container used in that region.

Congrats on the publication of your crit. piece.

4:35 PM, August 02, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Actually you and I have grammatically interpreted the line differently:
"The entire township ... passed ... lynx and wolverine and bobcat, heading south to the guns and the promise of fresh meat."

For you, "heading south to the guns and the promise of fresh meat" qualifies the 3 animals.

For me, that clause has "The entire township" as subject. For me it is a subordinate clause to that subject.

Like "They passed the girl, moving towards the kitchen".

Who's "moving towards the kitchen"?

For me it's "They". Or like you it could be "the girl".

However, if there is no comma, like:

"They passed the girl moving towards the kitchen".

then it is definitely "the girl" who is moving towards the kitchen.

Back to the poem's line, you will notice a comma at the end of the penultimate line with the 3 animals. The end-stopping here is compounded with the comma, making the syntactic unit final. Also, note the "heading south" fronts the last line, making us compare the "heading north", to make our interpretation.

I suspect your interpretation is coloured by the phrase "fresh meat", which often implies wild animals.

Your interpretation, with this in consideration, can also be correct. We can see both the township AND the animals heading south, the former towards death by guns and the latter towards the prospect of fresh meat. The fresh meat would be the township.

I really enjoy your comments. they finally lend a new light to this poem.

And thanks for the congrats.

9:31 AM, August 03, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

I just realise how clever Harsent is in building up that long complicated sentence. He must have deliberated made the last two lines linguistically ambiguous. This way the reader would not be sure if the township would be safe ultimately.

10:26 AM, August 03, 2008  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Yeah... the ambiguity. :)

6:18 PM, August 03, 2008  
Blogger msiagirl said...

I also read that the township, heading north - passed the animals, heading south towards the fresh meat.

Interesting how we can all read it differently. :)

Wow, I haven't been here a little while and there's all these great posts.

8:38 PM, August 24, 2008  
Blogger msiagirl said...

Ooh and congrats on your piece in that beautiful looking magazine! You do deconstruct the poems so beautifully, I am terribly haphazard and emotional, just like a girl eh?

8:41 PM, August 24, 2008  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

No, u're not haphazard.

9:24 AM, August 25, 2008  

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