A quiet portrait of isolated life uses coolly observed, ordinary details to build an unexpectedly suspenseful narrative
This week's poem "The Man" is by the Buddhist writer Maitreyabandhu, whose first full-length collection, The Crumb Road, has just been published by Bloodaxe and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Typically, it's a poem which seems to present a reassuringly ordinary and familiar scenario, while slowly making the reader aware that something unusual is going on. The images in a Maitreyabandhu poem may be drawn from life, and not obviously symbolic, but they're so arranged to denote a re-ordered reality, together evoking a sometimes dreamlike, inexplicable significance beyond the reader's initial expectations.
It's tempting to see the isolation of "the man" in the poem as the chosen solitude of a contemplative. But, if so, it's an edgy, distracted solitude. If this were a self-portrait by an artist, the artist in the picture would not be its whole subject, not a sharply-seen face, but a figure sharing the scene with other objects.
At first, we see him framed by the kitchen window. It's not clear at this point whether the view shown to the reader is seen from outside, or from the kitchen, or from inside the man's head. The view is not menacing, but disconcerting. It's as if the man had projected his own distractions onto the birds, with their nervous movements and "gestures of defiance". Somehow, all the birds in the poem, even the ladybirds, are emblematic, more than they seem, though their behaviour is not markedly extraordinary.
The pheasant is subdued, "his copper coat restrained". This may be the man's perception, but it's presented so as to suggest an act of self-control on the bird's part, a determination, paralleled by that of the setting sun, not to be picturesque. It's then we learn what the man is actually looking at: he's watching the ladybirds inside. We get the impression that there are, unusually, a lot of them – almost a swarm.
The man, as I've suggested, it not at the poem's centre. He's presented unnamed, the member of a species co-existing with other species. They all seem somehow to be caught between overlapping but inaccessible worlds: the ladybirds huddling by the lights and, in a startling simile, falling "down on their backs as if they'd taken ether", the nervous birds, the man who sits by the window and almost obsessively watches the ladybirds in a kitchen which, we increasingly sense, is not his own.
The middle stanza begins by drawing back to unfold a larger perspective of place and time. We see there's a field surrounding the house. Outside and indoors, time seems telescoped, one day merging with many. There are "always" the woodpigeons and the robin. The word "squadrons" gives the woodpigeons an uneasy, greyly militaristic presence. And though the robin's song might seem domesticated as it's conjured by the phrase, "as bright as teaspoons", the sweet, metallic sound so perfectly evoked is both joyous and a little menacing. Now time really speeds up. In a pair of beautifully economical lines, the sun rises and sets, as if seen through a time-lapse camera. The man is shown performing two simple activities, making two cups of coffee and taking off his glasses before sleeping. It's implied that these are regular activities. What else does he do? Does he eat? Is he fasting? Perhaps the poet has chosen to focus on those particular rituals because they are central to the man's sense of identity.
"Nothing/happened inside the house." Like a prisoner, the man goes out for exercise. He "walked around/the garden with his scarf around his neck". The repetition of "around" evokes entrapment. The robin and the scarf-wearing suggest the season is winter (perhaps the ladybirds were seeking places to hibernate?) All the details, so sharply observed, heard, tasted and felt, add up to a repetitive cycle which has a faintly desperate quality about it. Philip Larkin's question, "Where can we live but days?" comes to mind.
The human "signs of life" the man wishes for are auditory, and seem very quiet and intimate, particularly "the sound of someone … slipping on a jacket." These wishes might be memories, rather than the imagining of what another's presence might be like. When I first read the poem, I wondered if the man had lost a loved partner or close friend. But this stanza doesn't actually rule out another presence. It may be one which lacks discernible "signs of life". The man may be deluded about what is and isn't alive or present.
The brightness of the sunlit kettle recalls the robin's song earlier. The "patch of sunlight" seems to move fast ("swivelled") while the man ceases to move much at all. He "lay down and wrote inspiring things/on little scraps of card". Perhaps the reader should resist the temptation to mutter, "Aha. He's a poet." There's no certainty that the inspiring things are poems. The man may be writing anything, the judgment purely subjective. "Inspiring" is a word which tends to carry an ironic undertone.
The man no longer looks or goes outside. He imagines the sounds of the creatures beyond the house, but isn't sure if he's really heard them. The last line-and-a-half close the narrative abruptly and dramatically, the point of no return emphasised by the distant "spout/out" rhyme. Suddenly, the man is without the basic means of survival. He may be a practicing ascetic, but he will be forced to confront anew his human vulnerability. The poem simply says what happened: the man is now out of the picture. The reader supplies the gasp of dismay. But what if it's the moment of liberation?
The poem's slow tempo, its relaxed but precise diction, and the detached yet not unsympathetic manner, grounded in the use of the third-person perspective, create a mood of possibility, not necessarily negative. Importantly, the narrative is in the past tense. This helps build suspense, and adds a flavour of parable. It's impossible to read the poem without sharing the solitary man's own heightened perception. Even at the end, I felt obscurely that I wanted to go living in the poem and sharing the experience, however extreme it had become.
Both alert and bored, a creature of habit and of patient vision, "the man" is everyman. His story could be one that takes place in the future, at the moment when human civilisation begins to crumble. He may die or he'll go on, as Auden said, "To further griefs, and greater,/ And the defeat of grief." Beyond his lifespan, there will still be birds and animals, nights and days. Or so the poem encourages us to hope.
The man was sitting by the kitchen window.
Outside, the trees were full of nervous birds,
nodding their heads or flicking up their tails
in gestures of defiance. A pheasant walked
along a hedge, his copper coat restrained,
even the sun held back behind the trees.
The man was watching ladybirds climb up
the windowpane: so many on the walls,
so many huddled near the lights! They fell
down on their backs as if they'd taken ether.
The house stood in the corner of a field
with woodpigeons, always woodpigeons, in twos
or squadrons in the trees; and a robin singing
from a post, his song as bright as teaspoons.
The sun rose in pale and broken stripes,
then set in a perfect orange ball. Nothing
happened inside the house. The man took off
his glasses when he slept, drank two strong cups
of coffee every day, and walked around
the garden with his scarf around his neck.
He wanted signs of life: the sound of someone
closing a drawer or slipping on a jacket;
but no-one pressed the gravel drive or opened
the kitchen door. A patch of sunlight swivelled
round the room, brightening the kettle's spout.
The man lay down and wrote inspiring things
on little scraps of card. He thought he heard
a hare snuffling in the grass, an owl
hooting in the night. But then the taps
ran dry and the blue pilot light went out.