A droll, sophisticated take on first poetic inspiration – including some very adult reflections on its nature
Alert to subtle linguistic nuance, a witty and wide-ranging Francophile, Ahren Warner has a claim to be the "poet's poet" of his generation. Even in apparently domestic and personal guise, he's a writer whose work conveys voluptuous but intelligent delight in language and technique. This week's poem, Engram, is no exception.
Warner has recently published his second collection, Pretty, with its panoply of cunningly interlocked sequences, but the poem I've chosen, in introductory spirit, comes from his equally elegant and eloquent first collection, Confer.
Warner's humour is subtle, often sardonic. Here, embedded rather than overt, the joke's on the solemn self-regard so often found in the "child-discovers-he's-a-poet" genre. Unlike Seamus Heaney (one of the genre's more effective practitioners) Warner, or his speaker, finds his "Personal Helicon" not in deep, dark nature but in bath-water. Inspired but un-glamourised, the 10-year-old poet, newly undressed, scurries on an undignified errand ("bare-arsed and dangling") to find pen-and-paper before he plunges into the bubbles.
Foreshadowing the pen-and-paper reference of line 11 is an odd but pleasurable metaphor in line three. "Graphite" implies "pencil" – one which the speaker imagines aquaplaning as it writes across wet paper. The opening comparison (signalled by "As … ") splices images rather than startling us, Muldoon-style, with a similarity of opposites. The "wrinkled skin of milk over-boiled" (potent engram from the yuk-childhood-memory kitty) visually resembles "the sludge of moistening bath balls", and "the pucker of wet paper … /summons up bubble-bath". Messy textures and bubbly noises are relished in dense consonants and the repeated vowel sounds of "sludge", "pucker", "summons", "bubble."
A near-rhyme with "aquaplane", "faux-clementine" suggests both the synthetically fruity smell, and the aspirational aesthetic precision of bath-time product-branding. This aroma is not that of an orange or a satsuma, but a clementine. In the fourth couplet the speaker seems to challenge the conventional notion of the self-shaping significance of memory. In recalling simple colour ("I remember the red") and the feel of the fabric ("the nap") he takes us back to an early, pre-literate stage of perception. What have such basic sensuous memories to do with the poet's complex constructions of bath-time and inspiration? Perhaps quite a lot.
There's further pleasure to be had, it seems, in the ephemerality of the boy's new poem. Penned, not pencilled, its words succumb to water-damage and soap-slime: "each letter bleeding// to a smutch or shadow". Despite the "bleeding", it's as if the young poet's interest in observing process, and finding the words to describe it, had overcome his possessiveness towards his work.
Flirting in the first two couplets with the possibility of end-rhymes, the poem abandons that possibility in favour of the lighter nudge of internal rhyme: "red" /"shed", "this" / "kiss." How easy it would have been to re-install end-rhyme in the last couplet. The decision to embed the rhyme and pair end-words with little in common ("this" and "name") is a clever one; missing the rhyme, we almost enact the memory-failure.
The memories summoned in "Engram" gain significance by their association with the speaker's formative experience of himself as a young writer, suddenly excited by an idea, or perhaps simply by the idea of words. And this is what matters. The synechdoche implied in the term "first kiss" suggests that it's not the kiss but the person concerned who has proven forgettable. Perhaps another writerly process, that of turning away from world to word, is indicated. In the final couplet, the syntax becomes abrupt, almost curt, and the speaker's tone is difficult to ascertain. Is it triumphant, regretful, or coolly candid? Seeing the poem as a miniature research-lab rather than a garden of lost delights, I'd go for the latter.
As the wrinkled skin of milk over-boiled
conjures the sludge of moistening bath balls,
the pucker of wet paper – graphite's aquaplane –
summons up bubble bath, its faux-clementine.
And, though I know that a single memory
so often beacons through our infant clutter,
I'm surprised that (though only a decade ago)
I remember the red, the nap of the pyjamas
I shed for the bath; how urgent it seemed
to run bare-arsed and dangling
in search of a pen and the paper I'd hold
in muculent hands; each letter bleeding
to a smutch or shadow. I remember this.
I cannot remember my first kiss's name.