This week's poem has an economy of narrative that creates a playful, flirtatious feeling, yet is oblique and tender
This week's poem, Silt Whisper is by Ailbhe Darcy, and comes from her lively first collection, Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe, 2010).
Darcy's tone is not always as gentle as here, nor her structures as small-scale, but the unexpected combinations of image and idiom are characteristic. The first line is a bold plunge in medias res. Unless you're a card-player, you might mistake "one-eyed jacks" for a sexual reference, or even catch a passing image of playful, visually challenged rabbits having a field day. (By now, on page 47 of the 64-page collection, the reader expects surprises). But, of course, One-Eyed Jack is an American board game, played with cards and poker chips It's the two-eyed Jacks (clubs or diamonds) that are the official wild cards, so Silt Whisper begins with a signal that breaking and making rules could be significant in the poem. Hearts and spades are the official one-eyed jacks, and we all know what they symbolise. If it's a couple playing the game (we don't know for sure that it is), the invention of their own rules would be a shared joke, and mark a developing intimacy.
The economy and obliqueness of the narrative show a speaker willing to drop hints but in no mood to reveal all. The first couplet offers a regular metre, but that's another tease. There's a sense of volatility, and even flirtatiousness about the poem – a nod, a wink, a glance playing across those slender, rhythmically variable couplets, leaving room for doubts and imagination. We get a strong impression, though, that, whatever is going on in the foreground, more significant things are going on behind them.
Smoke stilled air" would be a cliche if it didn't invite a subject-verb-object reading simultaneously with an echo of "smoke-stilled air." We don't know if the leaves were leaves which needed to be raked or the leaves of books needing to be studied. Or perhaps they were the new leaves which ought to be turned over, now and again. "Unemployment was another high" seems almost a non-sequitur. "High" clearly refers to the smoke inhalation implied by line three, but unemployment stats are also suggested. It's mimetic, perhaps, evoking a soundbite (no life is so private it can be sealed against public events). If this isn't a general statement about unemployment, what kind of unemployment is meant? Is it failure to get a needed job, or the pleasure of not having one? The reference to skipping interviews might suggest the latter.
The "we" of the first two couplets might not inevitably suggest a couple, but after the third stanza's emotional build-up – self-mocking, but still emotional – it seems certain that "we" are a couple. The trio of desirables –"scald, steam, instance" – makes a very effective transition, via the "storm-in-a-teacup" catchphrase underlying it, from the tactile (hot liquid, scratchy polystyrene) to the metaphorical. Here's love's ardour given a light touch of the throwaway 21st century.
With the new order (of feeling?) comes a new orderliness in living. Lists are made, at least. Palms may be read for their "desire lines". To "collect blooms" might be a botanical discipline, but then again it may hark back to the notion of gathering rosebuds while ye may. There are so many hidden goals, as in adolescence. A field trip, a research project, a summer love affair, all seem lightly woven into the poem.
The past seems full of meaning the poem can't quite reach. Quick to evaporate, the lost time was transitional, a pause before the inevitable flight. Silt, in the geological sense, is a record of something broken down or changed, so how can it be a prophecy? "Silt of prophecy" is certainly a conundrum, if not an oxymoron. If it's what's left of the prophecy, then what was the prophecy? Something rock-solid and lasting – marriage, adulthood?
"The memory of weight in our cupped hands" is tactile, and yet "weight" is like "prophecy" in that it remains stubbornly abstract. What do the hands cup, any way: weight or the memory of weight?
The final couplet has a touch of the metaphysical, even the Neo-Platonic: "We" (two) "held the one breath". But if two are breathing as one, the condition of breath-holding also suggests that both are waiting for something else to happen.
Finally, the speaker gestures what might be despair: "I could never set it down". This suggests that the experience at memory's core is elusive, and not to be written up. But perhaps the line means that "it" can't be given up, either, or conveniently tidied away. The speaker may still be holding an indrawn breath.
The poem suggests open landscape spaces and mental spaces being deliberately left open. We have textures, impressions, moods, by-products. Like the substance of its title, it seems to consist of fragments left over from the past's construction of a hopeful future – fragments which are small but have their own complex "whisper".
Darcy was born in 1981 in Dublin, now lives in Indiana, and co-edits the Irish e-journal Moloch. Her work is funny and stylish, with an agile, zesty erudition and no lack of political fire. But the quieter poems are appealing, too – poems like Silt Whisper, which is oblique and tender, and reminds us that poetry's language needn't always strive to say it all. The strategy of writing as if slightly out of breath is nicely chosen.
That summer one-eyed jacks were wild:
we learned new rules, left tea to brew.
Smoke stilled air. Leaves lay unturned.
Unemployment was another high.
I had been a storm in a polystyrene cup,
seeking scald, steam, instance, but now
We drew up lists; mapped out desire lines; skipped
interviews to collect blooms; paused before flight.
The only record of that time the silt of prophecy,
the memory of weight in our cupped hands.
For a short while we held the one breath:
I could never set it down.