Dunhill's spare, thought-provoking poem draws parallels between the ancient game of skill and the art of poetry
This week I've chosen Darts, a spare, thought-provoking poem from the excellent new pamphlet Blackbirds (HappenStance, 2012) by Christina Dunhill.
Whether or not you've ever enjoyed the ancient game of skill, the poem lets you see the dart in close-up and weigh it in your hand. The physical object is the focus; in that respect, Darts is almost an imagist poem. But the poet's first move, after the title, is to open out unexpectedly beyond the image with a simile, "faithful like hawks". Hawks return to the falconer and the darts in the poem, new but perhaps not unused, seem to have flown back to their box – or else they are simply "faithful" by being present, roosting, available. Of course, objects don't fly by their own volition. But a hint of that fantastical little notion heightens our idea of the relationship between the player and the dart. Although the darts' ownership is not discussed in the first stanza, their presence evokes a corresponding sense of absence. Here are the darts, neat and inviting in their "velveted plastic grooves", but apparently ownerless.
The word "faithful" is picked up, and the idea further developed, in the line "the picture on the box was faithful …" This is a different kind of fidelity from that of the hawk. It hints at another possibility of interpretation for the poem: artistic fidelity, accurate depiction. The detail about the picture is a reminder of a child's perspective. Children often compare the toy or object on the package with the item inside, and, if it's an accurate representation, this somehow adds to the pleasure and sense of magic.
The second stanza homes in on the details, the adjectives well-judged and nicely arranged both before and after the noun they qualify: "Their perfect grips, each tiny steel bubble firm,/ each indentation clean …". These descriptive strokes build up a picture of an object which has been ergonomically designed. But it's more than that. The sentence, outlined, states "Their perfect grips … asked for your fingers." There is a plea, here, a plaintive note in "asked for". We begin to see the absent human figure being sketched into the poem. This is a specific "you", an addressee, as the next two lines reveal: "You'd splay the single fronds along your cheek, /then smooth them back." These are beautifully tactile and sensuous lines, with their crisp, almost feathery sounds. They reveal the dart-player's affection for the faithful hawk, the dart, by showing us his or her own unique, habitual gesture – like a little ritual that settles the focus and ensures success.
The final stanza is different from the previous two in its rhythm. For the first time, three lines flow continuously, without a full-stop until the end of the third line. That continuous movement impersonates the faultless arc of the throw, the effortless co-ordination. "You took them lightly" is a good pun. The focus is intense, not tense. All is ease and grace.
It's as if the reader saw the whole action of the player. Then there's a pause. The foreshortened fourth line suggests the soft, abrupt thud of a target being hit: "A pledge." It's a pledge because of what has gone before: "The moment when you took them lightly/ and raised them to your ear, contained the moment …" I don't want to pin the poem down by saying it's "about" writing poetry. But it reminds me of the way the first line of a poem, if you have started in the right place, leads inevitably to the next line, and so to the end. The poet may have to struggle with revisions, of course. The darts-player has to get it right first time. Here, the player enjoys the delicious moment of perfect judgment that might be a definition of genius, in whatever form it takes.
The poem itself seems to have been written in that way. Perhaps it wasn't, but the art lies in concealing the art. There's a precision and inevitability of movement from line to line which seem self-forgetful. Yet the poem also looks back: it might quietly be identifying itself as an elegy. With a minimum of explicitness, it takes us from the object to the remembered person and then to that person's essential, exemplary gift.
"A pledge", satisfyingly iambic, gives the previous line a final, fifth foot, so bringing it to rest. Perhaps another reason it works so well is that "pledge" rhymes with a word never used in the poem, but, all the same, subliminally haunting it: "fledge." It reminds us of the compact between child and parent, adult bird and fledglings, and the whole generational trajectory of a gift or skill un-anxiously handed on.
Darts by Christina Dunhill
The darts were faithful like hawks.
The picture of them on the box was faithful
to what lay inside. Three new darts with orange flights
in velveted plastic grooves.
Their perfect grips, each tiny steel bubble firm,
each indentation clean, asked for your fingers.
You'd splay the single fronds along your cheek,
then smooth them back.
The moment when you took them lightly
and raised them to your ear, contained the moment
when your eye and wrist would drive them home.