Sundial & Hourglass: the emotional architecture of loss over time
Chris Agee on his last two collections which record the years after the death of his four-year old daughter, Miriam, in 2001
Chris Agee. Photograph: Moya Nolan
In his Irish Times review of my fourth collection, Blue Sandbar Moon: A micro-epic (2018), the poet John McAuliffe described it, quite correctly, as “an unusual book”.
Indeed, I would go further and say: a highly unusual book. This is, I suppose, flagged up immediately by the contents itself: the 174 untitled first lines of micropoems, preceded by the beautiful but still-used word Proem (suggesting both poetry and prose) for the opening section of six titled poems and one prose parable. Several readers have remarked that reading through these first-lines itself has the feeling of some opaque but evocative poem …
Flagged up also, of course, by the unusual subtitle, virtually a neologism: A micro-epic. I don’t think this term has ever previously been used in a literary context, certainly not for a series of micropoems handled in this way; and so, for me, not only the name, but the form itself – a mosaic structure, allowing for celerity and/or dwelling when reading – constitutes something of a genuine formal démarche.
Debts? The short poems of Samuel Menashe (somewhat unconsciously) and (quite consciously) WG Sebald’s book of luminous micropoems, Unrecounted, which only appeared in English in 2004. It was Sebald himself, in fact, who may have coined (or at least popularised) the word micropoem; but I had actually started writing them in 2002, so that this book was more a confirmation than a first inspiration. Something in the period air, perhaps …
When I was finalising Blue Sandbar Moon in 2016, I began to realize that it would likely divide opinion.
It is so outwith certain established Irish-British styles, on the one hand; and, on the other, so indifferent to “in the manner of” poetry, Irish essentialist tendencies, the new plethora of identitarian political standpoints, and so forth; and although these currents are hard to describe generally, they are instantly recognisable on the level of the poem. McAuliffe’s own work, in fact, is a fine example of a kind of established faith in language’s impasto ability to be laid over any aspect of reality or sensibility.
So one of the unexpected post-publication things has been the many letters – at least 12 – from poets written in unsolicited response to this book. One I like especially describes Blue Sandbar Moon in ways I simply could not have managed or imagined. But this Irish poet gets somehow, too, exactly what I have always felt, yet would not have found words for: that it is more in the spirit of Celan or Beckett, than of a lyrical diary (not my intention at all!) or what he calls “lifestyle poems” …
A Scottish friend and colleague, who read Blue Sandbar Moon very carefully, described the whole thing – “Proem” and “A micro-epic” – as a single “emotional architecture”. This is my favourite description and I quote it frequently at readings – or when individual readers and writers ask me about the collection.
That characterisation also for me points to the main technical challenge of both books: the expression of actual emotion. As I put it in my unpublished Author’s Notes (written for family, friends, poets, writers), concerning the Heartscapes section of Next to Nothing (2009), very much cognate with the later “micro-epic”:
Swiftness of effect was, in fact, part of the intention and fidelity; the challenge here as throughout the book was to record true and deep “heart-feeling” (as opposed to the “feeling” of sensibility, apperception, historical moment, et cetera) – that most delicate of poetic material, owing to the swiftness of emotion itself …
For language (at least for me) does not have automatic imperious access to actual feeling. Such feeling is elusive, it does not necessarily give itself over to language, it can resist the intellectual assumption (or seduction) of “willed linguistic impasto”.
That is to say, language is not in control of emotion, but just the opposite, in my poetic pyscho-dynamics: feeling must be netted by words, often very swiftly, and so very briefly; but only when powerful visual-emotional experiences or epiphanies begin to materialise in the darkroom of words …
To which, to wit, the micropoem is perfectly suited. Feeling can breathe easily – is not overburdened with the impasto faith in the power of language. As I put it again in Author’s Notes, there is, due to the familial cataclysm, a counter-movement in Heartscapes towards the “textual as ‘next to nothing’, in several distinct senses, like Matisse’s sparest line-drawings in a sea of blank space …” (But do we not see, say, his few lines for a thigh just as clearly where the image actually counts and occurs, in the mind’s eye?)
Or as I might say now, after recording the snail-tracks of this 10-year micro-epic: Beckettian brevity has its uses, à la Saint Lô, especially when each tile is slowly assembled into a larger mosaic, or “emotional architecture”.
In the extraordinary Unrecounted, each striking micropoem is like one of the flaps opened on an Advent calendar – but the cumulative parataxis is somehow magnetised, as if his procedure was a revised version of Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot feel or see, thereof one must be silent … and Wittgenstein, I gather, had a lot to say about feeling and seeing as supplements to speaking …
So almost all the micropoems in Blue Sandbar Moon began in the moment of emotion and, sketch-like, were also finished there quickly as well. If I came back later (as suggested by some of the caption-dates), it was not so much a matter of emotion recollected in tranquillity, as a thread of emotional momentum resumed and run to its end.
As I mentioned in my introduction to Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays (The Irish Pages Press, 2016), English is now one lingua franca of the former Yugoslavia – and so, in this sense, I do think of Blue Sandbar Moon as a partly Balkan and even Central European book. Then, of course, there is the Croatian locus of so many of the poems across both sections of the collection – since, over the past quarter century, I have spent a great deal of time at our summer house on a Dalmatian island.
Nor can I shake the slight feeling that I’ve been influenced in some way by several Bosnian and Croatian writers; by the historical background (including Butler’s writing); and, indeed, by certain lyrical and syntactical qualities of the language itself. But again – like seeing one’s back – it would be hard to describe these exactly with any confidence.
Anyway, what I do know is that one of the unexpected writerly surprises as the micro-epic assembled itself was what I began to call (in self-speak) “the Brechtian streak”.
Although I’ve always been a highly political person, as a poet I’ve fought shy of ever conflating the ethically engaged with the overtly engagé. In the first two collections, there was a strong ecological and historical consciousness (most especially the first-hand poems on the 1999 Kosova killing-fields, in First Light), that certainly could be called engaged; but nothing so directly political as in this scattered Brechtian vein.
Here, once again, the micropoem – Beckett meeting Brecht, you might say – fits the formal bill perfectly. Because, ironically, (it seems to me), the thing about successful political poems is that you must really feel the politics. Emotion, deeply allied to an attitude or felt ethic, is a must. Opinion, sentiment, position, lifestyle or identitarian choice, may be necessary, but they are surely not sufficient alone. But such allied feeling is sufficient, if also informed by a truly politico-ethical imagination.
So, in an astute take on the book’s “emotional architecture”, my son Jacob described its personal-political “double light” as both “sundial & hourglass”.
Sundial in the sense that each year-section records the annual round of seasons and dates, including (amongst much else of that “architecture”) the time-signatures of anniversaries and remembered sorrows.
Hourglass in the sense that the book opens (in the Proem) with a more “outwith” or collective sense (or soupçon) of bereavement as a world-historical force (ie, the first three poems: allusions to Srebrenica and the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the punning “ash-flicker in Central Europe”) – before proceeding to the more “inwith”, like the narrowing of an hourglass.
Then towards the end of the collection, from about 2014, there is a return to the more “outwith”, socially and politically (notably the micropoems on another visit to The Hague tribunals, Ukraine, the Holocaust in Croatia, the Syrian Exodus, Germany and Israel, etc.), whereby bereavements and sorrows become again more “world-historical”. So like the bottom of an hourglass, spreading outwards …
But it was really only after Blue Sandbar Moon appeared that I realised I should try to pull together in my mind the distinct presence of the Holocaust in both collections.
In Next to Nothing, there are two poems (Depths and the title-poem) with allusions to the Holocaust: “the same sky/over Auschwitz,” and “To make good the camp ruination/Of the small Taj Mahal of Miriam’s life.”
Of course, notwithstanding The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the issue of “representations of the Holocaust” is completely problematic; so my images here are in no sense an attempt at historical depiction. For me, the debate has been settled once and for all by Sebald: I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It’s like the head of Medusa. You carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it, you’d be petrified.
Nonetheless, the fact that imagination reached for these particular metaphors in the context of bereavement always strikes me as highly significant – most especially when actually reading the poems aloud.
In the 2014-15 sections of Blue Sandbar Moon, there are two series of micropoems that come up against both the Ustaše (Quisling-Fascist) past and the Holocaust in Croatia, including visits to the major death camps (Jadovno and Jasenovac) where many Jews were amongst the approximately 100,000 victims at both (the latter being the largest death camp outside Germany, the General Government, and the Occupied USSR).
But it was again not until after the appearance of Blue Sandbar Moon that it occurred to me that the little suite of micropoems, In the Marches, is an exact illustration of Sebald’s comment.
He’s right – standing at the edge of that sink-hole “as yet undescended/by any speleologist”, you really cannot go any further in your mind. Not only is the bottom of that pit still inconceivable today, but (how much more so) the filling of it 79 years ago with the dead and the living, is simply a Medusa’s head – multiplied exponentially by the innumerable threads of horror spun by the Holocaust over occupied Europe …
So: no bridge in future across that abyss, apart from the written testimonies of actual survivors and witnesses?
What came to me finally as I thought afresh about that pit-mouth in the Lika was something unexpected – that yes, there is a slender rope-bridge, strong enough, strung between the shores of deepest loss, across that historical abyss. Not just language purified, having passed through, as Celan wrote famously – but feeling pure and simple, carried on the back of language. Because, after all, the varieties of human feeling are universal across history.
For amidst all the mud and flies and totalitarian horrors, what is one of the worst things – if not usually “the worst/of the worst” – that can happen in a camp? To lose a loved one, of course.
What a bereaved mother or father or child feels is that rope-bridge. We may not be able to focus on the horror of the Holocaust, but its “currents of action” (Eliot) can be felt and “seen” at its individual apocalyptic worst, across that abyss, from the other shore, in the heart …
So for me the general momentum across Next to Nothing and Blue Sandbar Moon – from “inwith” to “outwith” (and back) – is right there in microcosm at that pit-head moment at Jadovno, in the updraughts of the Holocaust, when the personal blends seamlessly into the collective:
We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, Four Quartets
But folded into this same momentum there’s surely a further “Brechtian” implication: that the social and political aggregation of personal sorrow makes of bereavement a truly world-historical force. As we see every night on the news, from Israel-Palestine to Myanmar, from Yemen to Black Lives Matter.
To say nothing of the pandemic.
Another unusual “bridge” within this collection, I feel.
Chris Agee’s third collection of poems, Next to Nothing (Salt, 2008), was shortlisted in Britain for the 2009 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and its sequel, Blue Sandbar Moon (The Irish Pages Press), appeared in 2018. His new poetic work, Trump Rant (The Irish Pages Press, 2021), has just been published