Night Office – an experiment in reading

Simon Jarvis’ remarkable new poem is now published and for sale at Enitharmon. I’m about to try something which may benefit from an explanation. I’m of the view that this is a work which deserves the widest possible readership and I am concerned that some readers will be deterred by the length of the poem and by the density of its subject matter. I therefore thought about writing one of those old-fashioned book things with the view of encouraging readers to engage with this and a few other equally complex works (The Odes, Slow Light, Kazoo Dreamboats, Casebook sprang immediately to mind). It could be argued that this is, in part, what this blog is ‘about’ but I wanted a greater sense of immediacy and a more realistic sketch of my readerly experience. I’ve therefore made a start with a few poems and what follows is the very early stages of my involvement with ‘Night Office’. As usual this is a provisional, subjective but hopefully honest account of paying attention to the first few pages of the poem:

You open it, it’s over 200 pages of rhyming 8-line stanzas. You put it down. You consider yourself to be a Jarvis completist and congratulate yourself (frequently) that you’ve read all of his even longer ‘The Unconditional’. Twice. This wasn’t an easy experience but you persevered through the endless digressions because you recognised that something important was going on and you liked what it did to your head.

The prospect of a few months of obsessive reading and re-reading isn’t that appealing, you know that your concentration will be tested and that much coffee will be drunk, you worry that you’ve stopped smoking since ‘The Unconditional’ and that staying mentally alert enough may be more of a problem. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, you’ve read the extract published in Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ and you’re therefore aware of the initial premise and the fact that there’s a level of lyrical beauty that’s quite spellbinding. You pick it up again and flick through the pages and are pleased to find that this tone seems to be sustained. You begin to read:

Every last person in this book is dead,-
including me. I'm talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet: he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and instead,
a lasting silence fills me and I rest.

You smile because there appears to be some satisfying complexity going on that’s reasonably audacious and doesn’t involve digression. The direct address to the reader is normally a device that you find heavy handed and contrived but this is done with an aggression that’s quite startling, the sort of thing that’s said prior to fight in the local pub. In the first three lines it is established that we are among the dead and it is these beings that will be brought to ‘life’ by the interaction between this speaker and his poet. All of this you find intriguing and now look forward to see how this is maintained over two hundred pages. This is also where you start to have harder thoughts concerning this reciprocity between a writer and his subject, You consider the accuracy of the view that characters take on a life of their own. You’ve had a few half-hearted attempts to write novels and some of your characters do seem to acquire some kind of separate existence in your head and there’s characters in ‘The Faerie Queene’ that seem to be especially real (Britomart, Arthur, Artegall). You wonder whether ‘my poet’ is going to be referred to again. Of course the effect of this address is to remind you that what follows is a fabrication. that you’re not expected to immerse yourself in the world of the poem but to remain a bit removed from it even though you may have to accept the premise that the dead may speak to us.

Most of the above is reasonably clear but then you notice the semi-colon problem. Things would be much easier if there was a full stop after ‘thanks to me’ but there isn’t and you’re left wondering how the shaking of the head is connected to the relationship that’s just been alluded to / described. You then decide that you’re probably thinking too hard and read on.

It’s snowing, it transpires that our dead talker is in a block of empty flats and it is snowing outside. This event is described with such care that you think that it may well allude to something else, that the action of the snow may have something to do with our mortality:

Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels

is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves 
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and 
they fall more slowly over by the stand.

So, the snow is obliterating the ground, the surface of the earth and the initial flakes create a pattern of white and black patches. These ‘blacks’ are said to be ‘determined’ which may or may not be referring to baseline theology on whether or not we have complete freedom of action our our fate is predetermined by God. The snow covers everything up and in doing so obliterates all trace/memory of their existence. In the ‘ordinary’ world things don’t happen like this, traces are left, things and people are remembered so this snow must be especially destructive because it can effortlessly wipe out this fame or memory. What is being described however is not a blizzard but something that falls ‘flake by flake’ which doesn’t have those notions of hazard and destruction.

‘Mirrors’ and ‘darkly’ immediately produce the quote from Corinthians 1 in your head even if you’ve never fully understood it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” Of course, it’s even less certain that this possible ‘connection’ is the right one but it’s something that can be tested and revised as you go through the poem.

Then you think some more about snow, as in real snow, and you realise that a thin layer of snow does not obliterate all trace of what’s underneath- a flat surface like this black ground might change colour and texture but it will still be recognisably flat just as a slope will still be discernible. The other significant property of snow is that it eventually melts revealing what lies beneath. You read this again and notice that what is obliterated is not the blacks themselves but what they think or feel. This really doesn’t help, neither does the odd observation that the ‘snow’s dim lights’ appear to change the rate of fall depending on where they are.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you are already over-reading, that you’re trying to find things that aren’t actually there, that you should accept the fact that there’s this dead person inside this empty block of flats and that it’s gently snowing outside.

You then realise that the use of rhyme appears to be ‘working’ in that it isn’t getting in the way of your reading and does appear to add an injection of ‘flow’ to each stanza. This is odd because you normally get annoyed by the rhyme constraint as it invariably feels both contrived and (technical term) clunky. You remind yourself to read the Jarvis ‘Why Rhymes Pleases’ essay because you remember arguing with it at the time. You also admonish yourself for deriding the Jarvis view that formal constraint can enhance Big Thought Poetry.

You proceed slowly, you know from his previous work that Jarvis rewards attention to every aspect of what is going on. You enjoy this level of concentration, reading and re-reading a few lines at a time until things become apparent but this use of rhyme does, surprisingly, seem to make things more evocative and more beautiful. You think about this for a while and realise that beauty is a rare event in your reading of poetry, you can only recall brief moments of beauty in Celan, Hill and David Jones and none of these are bound by any kind of formal constraint. You then start to think about poems that describe beautiful things and those that deal with love and this isn’t the kind of beauty that you’re thinking of, it is a group of words or lines that are beautiful in themselves regardless of subject matter. You’re beginning to think / hope that ‘Night Office’ might be beautiful.

From the snow and its effects, things move onto the dead and three stanzas that seem to set out the ‘frame’ of what is to follow:

“Dead, every one, and gone beneath the snow.
I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
They are where all the happy dead must go.
Only, in this dark room, I cannot know
their quietness, their sleep; my head replaces
each one precisely in his life, and so 
they walk again from lungs to teeth,
escaping painfully from sweet relief.

Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stress
not chosen or invented, though they are
not accidental either, since they test,
for each imprinted pattern, where the bar
is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest
rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each
treads slowly through me his peculiar speech,

sending me soft dumbnesses, impressions
left in the surface of my slow tongue, which
shifts shape a little each time. Dreams, depressions,
pass through my face from inside. In this rich,
yet monochrome, design, these curls, recessions,
vaults and returns speak, soundlessly, dip, pitch
their friendly spirit voices through my sight
and out into the European Night,

So things start to get a bit odder, the dead person who is still talking to us is the mouthpiece of these friendly spirits who are already where the ‘happy dead must go’. You’re not keen on this turn of events, your failure to believe in a god also entails rejecting any notion of the after- life. You also view the ide that the dead use living people to speak on their behalf one of the most cruel forms of quackery. Of course, this may not be what Jarvis means but you cn’t immediately think of another reading of “as each / treads slowly through me his peculiar speech”. Whether this is the case or not there are a few questions that need to be answered:

  • Does searching the past simply mean ‘trying to remember’ or does it mean that the past is a physical thing, like an archive, that can be searched?
  • Do all the happy dead go to heaven or is this referring to some other state / place?
  • Are the happy dead happy because they’re in heaven or were they happy before they got there?
  • Why is being dead described as ‘sweet relief’?
  • Is the ‘not chosen, invented nor accidental’ conundrum a riff on theological understandings of free will and determinism or is some other kind of paradox been alluded to?
  • Why are impressions left in the tongue rather than on the tongue?
  • How, exactly, are these spirit voices pitched through his sight?
  • Why is the night specifically European?

You hope that some of these will be resolved as you move through the rest of the poem but there is niggling doubt that some of this might be clever for the sake of being clever. It may be that ‘my slow tongue’ refers to language or speech rather than the physical object and that ‘in’ would make a little more sense, but not much.

The other worry is whether or not the chosen / invented rigmarole is overly contrived leading to a degree of clunkiness. If it does refer to God’s foreknowledge then why not be a little less oblique? If it refers to something else then it simply sounds portentous without meaning very much- this is one of the most common poetic mistakes but it’s not one that Jarvis usually makes.

Then you decide to look at ‘curls, recessions, / vaults, and returns’ that ‘speak soundlessly’. The first thing that strikes you is church architecture with regard to the first three and a kind of roundedness that can be applied to vaults and curls and then you get hung up on the discovery that a recession is also a feature of the church service “the withdrawing procession of the clergy and choir to the vestry at the close of the service” together with ‘return’ as a noun can also mean ‘paroussia’ which apparently is the Second Coming or ‘an event comparable to the Second Coming; a Messianic of apocalyptic appearance’. At this point your brain starts to hurt because the primary ‘sense’ is the dead, these “friendly spirits” are going to speak through our narrator – who is also dead. Things become complex when you start to think about things withdrawing or turning in on themselves or being covered by round arches or by returning as part of the End of Time. You don’t think for one second that any such return at any time is at all possible and that this cynicism may be preventing a clearer understanding.

You’re also struck by things that “pass through my face from the inside” and you decide to think about this some more. Is this inside the contents of the skull or is it the fleshy structure of the face itself? You are going for the former because this is where dreams and depressions lurk. This passing through implies that these ‘states’ are on there way to somewhere else or is this just a clever way of saying that these things leave their mark or trace on their way out into the world?

As ever, any kind of feedback- especially with regard to the way things are said – would be very much appreciated.


4 responses to “Night Office – an experiment in reading

  1. I agree about the impressions in the tongue (rather than on) being a linguistic allusion, and I am fascinated by your description of your atheism as a ‘failure to believe in god’ – this is sometimes how I feel, that not being able to take that step of faith is somehow a failure on my part. But I don’t believe.

  2. Also, if the speaker is also dead (with the dead speaking through him in turn) then is it quackery? Or could we go digging in myth for mouthpiece spirits – orpheus?

  3. (One more before bed. I like this direct way of writing about the difficult to understand stuff. I find this easier to tune into and engage my own ideas with than your more ‘traditionally’ authored stuff. The tone gives me permission to join in rather than just listen)

    • Really pleased that you like this approach, I’m enjoying it because (I think) I was getting a bit tired of the old ‘voice’ and needed to try something that I could sustain over greater length. Re Orpheus- you may well be right but I’m now trying to recount an immediate response- albeit in a detailed kind of way. You’ll also gather that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

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