Three Books by David Wevill09/03/2010
Penguin Modern Poets 4
Birth of a Shark
A Christ of the Ice-Floes
Without a doubt, the poetry of David Wevill is one of the best-kept secrets in the US literary landscape. He was born a Canadian in Yokohama, Japan, in 1935, moved to Canada before the outbreak of the second World War, graduated with Honors in English and History from Cambridge in the late-1950s, lived in Burma and Spain during the 1960s, and moved to Texas in 1970, where he taught at the University of Texas at Austin until his retirement.
Wevill’s work was first showcased in A. Alvarez’s anthology The New Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1962). Alvarez’s inflammatory, truculent, finger-pointing introduction to The New Poetry made the book both an instant controversy and an instant success; Alvarez railed against the gentility, decency, politeness, and bourgeois conservatism he found at play in the canon-accepted English poets of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. In its first edition, The New Poetry postured itself as an all-British anthology, which clearly was broadly defined as such considering it contained work by David Wevill, a Japan-born Canadian. Poets featured in the first edition of The New Poetry included, among others, Donald Davie, Philip Larkin, Michael Hamburger, Christopher Middleton, Charles Tomlinson, Thom Gunn, Peter Porter, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, George MacBeth, and Ian Hamilton. In its revised and enlarged edition (pictured here), published by Penguin in 1966, The New Poetry shed its British-only parameters and featured poems by Berryman, Plath, Lowell, and Sexton alongside those from the original table of contents.
Preceding his publication in The New Poetry, Wevill gained recognition as a promising new voice due to his association with The Group, an unofficial “workshop” collective of young poets in London. Whether by design or by chance, the poems generated by The Group served as a stark contrast to the creative efforts generated by the so-called Movement. The Movement poets were featured in Robert Conquest’s 1956 New Lines anthology (Macmillan) and tended toward a conservative, somewhat neoclassical, and traditionally formal aesthetic. Alvarez openly attacked the work of the New Lines poets in the The New Poetry as follows:
Of the nine poets to appear in this [New Lines], six, at the time, were university teachers, two librarians, and one a Civil Servant. It was, in short, academic-administrative verse, polite, knowledgeable, efficient, polished, and, in its quiet way, even intelligent. What it had to offer positively was more difficult to describe.
The Group was initially facilitated by Philip Hobsbaum in 1954, then later by Edward Lucie-Smith in 1959. In addition to David Wevill, the ranks of The Group included noted poets such as Zulfikar Ghose, George MacBeth, Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove, Fleur Adcock, Nathaniel Tarn, and Ted Hughes. When Hobsbaum left Cambridge to lecture at Queen’s University, Belfast, he organized the so-called Belfast Group. During its tenure, The Belfast Group included, among others, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, and Paul Muldoon. In 1963 Edward Lucie-Smith edited A Group Anthology (Oxford University Press), which included 5 poems by David Wevill, the anthology’s only North American voice.
England’s early 1960s also gave rise to one of the greatest English-language poetry venues in the postwar era, The Penguin Modern Poets series. Eschewing the traditional hardbound single-author volume, Penguin struck out by publishing three authors in each of its Modern Poets titles, all of which were sold as inexpensive, pocket-sized paperbacks. From 1962 to 1979, Penguin published 81 poets (27 books) in this format, including Lawrence Durrell, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski, John Ashberry, Edwin Muir, Kenneth Koch, as well as several poets featured in A Group Anthology and The New Poetry.
Penguin Modern Poets 4 gave rise to Wevill’s reputation as a premier poet of his generation. It was in this volume that readers first caught a full glimpse of Wevill’s distinct style and haunting obsessions. These dense, image-driven meditations center on the menacing relationship between our world and the much darker one that walks beside it. Here are two examples from the then-28-year-old Wevill:
MY FATHER SLEEPS
Who brought from the snow-wrecked
Hulk of winter his salvaged
Purpose; who came, blind but friendly
By these lines his mouth and his eyes
Have fixed; and without further talk
Taught me at last how to walk,
Until by his power I came
Out of innocence like the worm’s flame
Into daylight. What practical need
His patience had, and anger bred
Of disillusionment, has gone with age.
I have this white-haired image,
Arrogant perhaps, and too much the hero
For our friendship’s good: Lear, although
Afraid of words as of madness,
Of procrastination as of disease—
A lover of plain-spokenness—
Though not where it hurt, that he could understand.
If I trace the scars in my right hand
They tell me of purpose disobeyed,
Of old and factual truths my head
Cannot alter. And watching him thus
Sprawled like a crooked frame of clothes
In the sleep of sixty years, jaws firm,
Breathing through the obstacle of his nose
A stubborn air that is truth for him,
I confront my plainest self. And feel
In the slow hardening of my bones, a questioning
Depth that his pride could never reveal;
That in his sleep stirs its cruel beginning.
The last days wrenched her inward completely.
Her beak scraped inner brain,
Her skull turned to old rocks and the wine seeped out dry.
Under her hooded scrutiny now
The Rhine flows on, without help; she can’t stop it.
In the perfect dead breathless quiet
Her only sound is the blind deep drumming of barges
Tugging her weight, tapping
Northwards, against the current.
Snow must fall like bone-meal here,
And success fledges no new eagles. We paw
In the cold, towards her warm red side
Of sunset, where the aching black
Grapes shiver their tinsel warnings at birds.
On either side her wings are folded, hard.
Her back is against the south,
Her brackish beak is raised to the North Sea.
Now her iron-age furnace heart
Hardens too, with October, the dead in our bones.
It is a grim place to bring love.
Just one year after the publication of Penguin Modern Poets 4, Wevill produced his first full-length collection, Birth of a Shark (Macmillan, 1964). This book contains the best work in Penguin Modern Poets 4 as well as an ample selection of new work. Birth of a Shark resonates both tonally and thematically with his first publication, continuing Wevill’s search to create a language for the precarious relationship between death, life, and the organic realm of rot and decay.
FUGUE FOR WIND AND RAIN
We come into a new time; the heavy-mooned
Darkness hangs its orange crater flare
Above the sea.
My beaches are quiet: not a crab
Shuffles to disgorge its load of soft bulk from its outworn
Shell and die
In patters on the sand. Tonight
The wind sickens with heat: late strollers loaf
And stumble over curbs; and all
Earth’s energy’s coiled with this soaking sheet wrung
From the insomniac’s dreamed sleep of the windstorm.
We come into a new time,
The world and myself: parable of the dog
Who buried his sense of smell with the bone-scraps,
And could find neither.
Consuls, lictors, slaves—
Dipped in Caesar’s blood, blood of the fishes;
Men and their knives of rule, manners, lives, hypocrisy
Of bride and groom, ride on
Bloodily to rebirths. In my effort to call them back
I make slaves of everything I see: that ditch
Where wineskin-fat cactuses gripped
The white solid fortress rock,
Where red-black beetles fought and tore at each other’s
Strung nerves: in the violence of thunder off the hills’
One rainstorm in a month,—
In our bodies gored by the flame of July night.
Night along the sea promenade,
Black as my boots and finer than hair,
Drifts with the flickering torches of ships towards that far
White mustering of daybreak—
Time of the Greeks and before, the sea, these coasts
A haze of bound chapters now.
Over this nurturing ache of black
Nothing breaks; but is made to know its final breakage plain
And whole as a part
Of the fissure it came from. I look,
And can see no change: but am myself
The sign itself of change in everything: the clean, sharp
fissure that bleeds the cactus, the deadly
Rote and scrabble of the red
Beetles spitting out their eggs…
Storm draw the water out of me.
This sea has many coasts,
And every inch and brown pool
Is a fingerprint. The gannets come
Plunging, wreck their sight; the sea-salt keeps
The crab-flesh it corrodes; and the grape-
Avenging Dog-star locks
These fiery lives to the pillows we drown on.
Age his its lovers:
And neither history nor bad experience can ever redeem my one
First error. I look for the change of light, now
Over this sea: which tomorrow promises only by small chance
To reveal, be re-revealed
Through its weak heart of water, my body, my blood.
The sinewy nerves of a cabbage now
Contain my head. Its pulse-count
Falls to a trickle, under the icing of hope.
I am more things than a vegetable,
Or a landscape battered blue my March;
I run over them. I perpetrate
Cruelties at their roots. And still they follow
Their needs and ways: burns
Heal in the generations, old wounds grow stony
And bother nothing but the mind.
Through it all, my telltale streaks in the wind
From her quarter. I am more
Than these things. Who would judge my secrets?
So I wake one morning, and tell my legs
Of the difficult journey made
Aghast in the dream. How small I must make myself!
And how great—
With catastrophe! The beating of rain
Eats into the sun’s thaw. I have gathered wood
To build my shadow a fire—
Is she female? At lunch I chew my meat
Slowly, wondering if I am vegetarian.
I nibble dryly at crusts and become
The whole, huskless grain before an aching fire.
A pride like mine must have
More lives in its hands than one,
And in such generous variety that
The stars seem egotistical. Who would complain
Of the number of swordblades and plowblades
Through which the earthworm now
Pushes his waste? And still
The deserted, the dead, and the blind go underground,
To weep at these monstrous remains
That never grew in them.
I watch them now;
My altars of fire and sunlight become
Too crowded with worshippers. I go down
Hoping, Eurydice, to find you there.
Loose, tethered loose
This horse combs serenity with its eyes,
The bigger man dismounts,
Moves round the horse’s rump into full shadow.
The smaller one basks under his broad hat,
Under the strong sun that wrinkles a desert horizon
And sets lizards thinking.
This scene I just imagine.
Why is it so important—
Why erase the hazardous energy of life with what’s
Merely apparent in the mind—
This tethered horse, the two contradictory men,
Different in habit, endurance and build,
Circling the one animal heart?
The men do not know me.
The horse in repose is companionable
Only in this moment of fatigue and trust.
The men must continually forgive each other
Their differences: they share this horse forever.
Probably trusting the horse they trust each other.
They have only stopped to rest themselves
Briefly in my mind: they are welcome.
The world, as they pose now, cannot change them much;
The true sun blacken or desert them
Beyond either’s endurance.
The horse is all heart—,
Its resting heart goes pounding on like hooves
Any movement to gallop the desert to sweat on its back,
And be stabled at nightfall.
Wevill’s second full-length collection, A Christ of the Ice-Floes, appeared two years later in 1966. Of the three volumes discussed here, this is perhaps Wevill’s most important. A Christ of the Ice-Floes carries on the same dark, obsessive tones and themes of his previous work, yet it differs in three distinct ways.
First off, the poems in this volume, arguably, are Wevill’s most Canadian–not in the sense of nationalism or populism, but in the sense that many of the poems deal directly with details of landscape and place exclusive to the Canada of his adolescence (see “A Christ of the Ice-Floes”). In fact, A Christ of the Ice-Floes was runner-up for Canada’s 1966 Governor General’s Award, the country’s most esteemed literary prize. (Margaret Margaret Atwood won for her collection The Circle Game.)
Secondly, the poems in A Christ of the Ice-Floes marked the beginning of Wevill’s experimentation with the fragment and non-traditionally organized line-breaks. These stylistic elements have a direct correlation to Wevill’s movement toward a more inward-looking, philosophical poem (see “Diamonds” and “Either / Or”). Indeed, nearly all of Wevill’s successive volumes use this style as a mode of self-interrogation, an exploration into the notion that the self is a tortured amalgamation of the lives of others, both past and present.
Thirdly, we find in this collection, for the first time, Wevill’s direct engagement with the ethics surrounding modernization, mechanization, and environmentalism (see “Wherever Men Have Been”).
A CHRIST OF THE ICE-FLOES
Birches, a few elms, a glove of willows, a thorn—
His footprints crushed the snow
And stopped, where the ice was still heavy,
The river’s current tearing at its shelves.
Was he deluding himself? Coming here…
It was neither a time of questions nor
Of answers, this in-between season—
Man remaking himself in the image of March,
His testicles drawn in,
His penis shrunken. In the black mid-current
A family of mallards crashed the ice
And swam away downstream…He heard their talk,
Biting the wind, and behind him
The forest dripped, trees
Distilling to earth, roots, leaves,
The monotonous melting. ‘Father’ he said, ‘father’—
Who had imagined, once, his colonies
Of steaming chimneys, earth-proud, God-fearing,
Complacent but watchful, ready now
At the thawing to welcome him home.
The trick was to go away and then return
Later, without promising when,
Without foresaying relief or hope of his kingdom’s
Homecoming…He was the word,
They the deed: and the deed deserted by the word
Meant nothing to them: or meant
Too much for their memory of him to outlast his going
And return. They were able—
His people. Upriver his eyes swung
With the turning wind; he saw the big houses,
Shacks, mansions, boathouses, a length of beach,
And the ice-floes ducking downriver like drowned sheep
Or so many souls, in the mind,
Starved water, without fish rising…
It was cold, this halfway season,
White, with the false purity of whites,
Wind-chafed skin, the brown earth breaking.
He’d come to imagine his future, not theirs;
He saw now the need of his coming was their myth,
Powerful as the strengthening of each season—
As inevitable, as unbelievable as the first
Bud or flake or brush of puberty—
He took up a stone near his feet
And shied it skittering over the drift ice…
Its brief splash broke him awake…
He felt the water forming round his ankles,
Swaying, rising…he didn’t know he was walking
Until the last ice gave, and he stood in the river,
As the stone’d stood—
Less than an instant—,
The brown hair vanished, and the thorn tree drowned.
Carries a scandal
At his heart.
The woodpile hides
A baby, or
A dead wife’s bones.
In an ice-house down by the lake
On the damp sawdust, a coffin holds
The baker who went out hunting ‘to steady his nerves.’
Nature a memory now—
Don’t raise wild sap in a frivolous tree.
The land will not remember,
Or the sand, or the old stockbroker
Who drank his last martini in the lake one autumn night.
Leaves shake in the dust
Along the summer roads;
A cow gives birth to her calf, the world
Goes slack. Blood dries on the tines of straw.
And hay-stalks whistle through the field
Where a rusted car, its glass knocked out
Moans in the sun beside a plough,
A lesser ribcage, half-buried.
Heavy with dinosaurs—
In their depth the black is moving—
Blueberry bushes in the scrub
Stained our pails and fingers,
Boy, girl, and the breath of the blue juice.
And later the dirt,
Outhouse, hole of a mother skunk,
A prickle of flies and disease, streaming over the lake
To spider islands…
We killed a crow by the rainbarrel,
Peppered it with B-B shot.
Three nights the crow slept in my bed,
The fourth day I took and broke my gun.
Later I made amends—
My mind the temper of the lake
Changing like the color of an eye,
Or rooted: an Algonquin burial mound
Whose hair of cedar hides the old scalp wound.
In the slow fall of needles
Two old pines
Remembered they were man and wife.
Faded blueflower curtains,
Pimples plucked by flashlight in the mirror—
This house was my body once,
My first two skins, water and wind.
Now shadflies go the way of salt
Over a shoulder, through the pores of screens.
Such delicacy as I caught
In the nighthawk’s cry, the kindred
Whip-poor-will, like the cry of a young tree
In its growth…
The nail is in the tree’s heart,
Hammered home with the flat of a shoe.
The house is up for auction soon.
Small fish turn tail and plunge through the pools of oil
To fresher waters.
Down the same darkness,
Retrieve my lost diamond.
EITHER / OR
the doors between us glass doors
through the clothes and skin
and the senses’
from event to event
are interlocking circles
never the same wound in the same place
but a shift in the air
like a mouth riding alone through the spaces
of rooms: speaking
whisper-cautions less than that lip-readings
There is no vanishing-point
where either is the other, one is both
and the crime is single—
only the mouths of each
for whom the same words have bone-different meanings
As in this rest-house
high in the Shan mountains
watching the fire die down
which our hands built like a house
I fret for the future but am at peace in the now
and no new thing
can blend us or divide us
beyond what we are
and will be.
WHEREVER MEN HAVE BEEN
Wherever men have been, this
Snail-luster trail of scent remains permanent.
The wild animals test
Their lives against it; the spoilt forests
Remember a fugitive dream of shadows
Cautious and as slow as the rise of sap,
A muttering of herds, the first
Tentative fires. The sea remembers
A thrill of keels, the feel of an outgoing ship
And the slower complacent homecomings—
Wives widowed, the hominy fields and hill
Made fertile by the burial of a fish.
The trail winds round and round—
Other trails cross it: hot at the touch of a nose
It blazes briefly, is torn in the brain of the tiger
And leaps rivers; and if one
Stumbles and drowns and drifts back to the sea,
Their mourning is brief as shock,
And the trail continues. Withered arm,
The spearman’s blunderbuss and the hunter’s bombs
Disrupt little: the earth resettles—
Broken cities, books burnt,
Blood-trail leading nowhere but a patch to die alone in,
Winding, winding round,
Carrion of the quick mistake,
Ill-luck and the mastery of gunfire—
Till the monsters become flesh,
And the trail grows claws and follows on its belly,
Footsteps ghostly following through the elephant grass
To where sewer-grilles breathe
Gases and mice in the face of a waiting cat.
Don’t turn now, don’t look back—
Is there a need to know more than they know
Already, where the feet have walked,
Crawled, or run…where the circle of sick slaves
Waited for death as a dying man waits for God?
Nerves, flies…the brain eats through its skull,
An acetylene impulse sears the stomach away
And the trail quickens. Where are their inventions?
Don’t ask now, don’t look back—
A ticket will take you farther than you know.
One by one the animals leave the earth
and the trail goes broad and deserted…
What are they to you but the tenants now
Of a fiery disillusion? Wherever men go to,
Not like the elephants or the slaves to their last
Glade, those mammoth hills of skulls
Discovered, and the scrambled tusks and hoofs,
Earth doesn’t answer, the noises don’t answer.
The frigidaire hums its song to the North Pole,
And one bleak outcast dog answers, howling…
Years and years and years—
The rusk-whisper of grass at heel,
The binding vision of the first man born.
Despite having published 11 collections subsequent to A Christ of the Ice-Floes, and despite having lived in Texas for nearly four decades, Wevill remains an all-but-unknown figure in the US. It’s a mystery why lackluster poets are championed and true originals are neglected. To get a sense for Wevill’s translation and prose endeavors, check out his translation of Ferenc Juhász’s selected poems (which appeared in the Penguin Modern European Poets series in 1970) and Casual Ties (Curbstone, 1983), a book-length sequence of linked prose poems. To find Wevill’s early books, you may need to do some digging. Penguin Modern Poets 4 is readily available in inexpensive used editions, but Birth of a Shark and A Christ of the Ice-Floes are becoming increasingly uncommon–both can be found on abebooks from between 20 to 100 dollars, though you may have to order them from UK booksellers (shipping costs can be quite high, and delivery quite slow). Wevill’s third and fourth full-length collections, Firebreak (Macmillan, 1971) and Where the Arrow Falls (Macmillan, 1974), tend to run in the same price range, though the less expensive editions of all four titles are typically ex-library books. The two anthologies discussed here are also worth adding to your home library. Alvarez’s The New Poetry typically runs for under 5 dollars. Lucie-Smith’s A Group Anthology is very difficult to find here in the US; the few copies we were able to find though the links at The Olives of Oblivion Bookseller Hall of Fame ran from 50 to well over 100 dollars. We here at The Olives Oblivion can’t recommend Wevill’s writing enough–help us bring the books of this unique North American poet back onto the shelves of contemporary readers.
Click here to read the 1977 open letter to the Prime Minister of Iran drafted and signed by Reza Baraheni, David Wevill, Denise Levertov, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Ginsberg, Howard Zinn, and others. This originally appeared in the New York Review of Books.
The books of David Wevill:
Penguin Modern Poets 4 (Penguin, 1963); Birth of a Shark (Macmillan, 1964); A Christ of the Ice-Floes (Macmillan, 1966); Penguin Modern European Poets: Sándor Weöres and Ferenc Juhász (as translator) (Penguin, 1970); Firebreak (Macmillan, 1971); Where the Arrow Falls (Macmillan / St. Martin’s, 1974); Casual Ties (Curbstone Publishing Company, 1983; Tavern Books, 2010); Other Names for the Heart: New and Selected Poems 1964-1984 (Exile Editions Ltd., 1985); Figure of Eight: New Poems and Selected Translations (Exile Editions Ltd., 1987); Figure of Eight (Shearsman, 1998); Child Eating Snow (Exile Editions Ltd., 1994); Solo With Grazing Deer (Exile Editions Ltd., 2001); Departures: Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2003); Asterisks (Exile Editions Ltd., 2007); To Build My Shadow a Fire: The Poetry and Translations of David Wevill, edited by Michael McGriff (Truman State University Press, 2010).
The Olives of Oblivion was an anonymous site dedicated to contemporary poetry that ran during 2008. The critics have permitted The Owls to revisit the essays.