Wednesday, 6 May 2020

J. F. Hendry footnote


Many of you will be familiar with that passage in The orchestral mountain (1943) where JF Hendry says
A bird’s wing is broken into their current.
Across cerulean heights
Staring the dark and fivefold continent
The infinite allotropy of her spirit
Eludes me still. Her voice
Wanders on the wind with no wit in it.

Speak! Speak to me, o aerophyte!

-which is moving but baffling. (The pronoun “their” may refer back to “oceans of the air” in line 1, which would have currents.) The book is a longer work (maybe 800 lines) about the death of his wife, Theodora. Theodora Ussai was a Slovenian-American and died as the result of a bombing raid on London. The detail is that she was traumatised by the raid and killed herself. "The coup d’etat and Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia took place two days before she died", according to Jim. “phyte” is an element appearing in numerous compounds meaning “plant”, so “aerophyte” means “plant that grows in the air”. The notion of the aeroplanes and the bombs being in the air, living in the air, is easy to grasp, but not Theodora as a being of the air.
This has been clarified by a photograph which Jim Keery sent me. It shows Theodora in a pilot’s outfit of the time. She was a pilot. It is a terrific photograph, the clothing needed for planes in those days (unheated and extremely cold once you got high up) has the virtue of being a perfect signal of itself: she can’t be anything else but a pilot. She looks radiant – the clothing, with the leather helmet and so on, is unfeminine but asserts intelligence, physical courage, self-reliance, mastery, in a striking way. The garb is free from ornament, but its functionality is very visible and very assertive.
You could say that she looks down on inherited female roles from the height from which an aeroplane looks down on the inherited landscape thousands of feet below it. The poem says
Nerveless, her fingers of rime
Banish the sun that shone
Bronze on the hero’s climb.

The rime may be the cold of high latitude in an unheated plane, and the "hero” is likely to be Theodora. The figure in the photograph is heroic, no less. The climb relates to a plane ascending, but may also be an instance of the ”mountain” in the title. Indeed, it could be that the mountain is the column of air beneath a plane high in the sky, and that orchestra is the sound, of the motor, prop, and winds rushing past, which would be in a pilot’s ear. Is that true? Hendry’s verse texture is always suggestive but not dense enough to allow us to be sure. Where we stop guessing is an index of the poem – it is good up until that point. 'allotropy' is a kind of phonetic mirror image of 'aerophyte', the motive for choosing these words is acoustic and not only semantic.
The dust jacket tells us that “The theme of this new elegy is also death”. “Orchestral mountain” is a possibly meaningful phrase; as from a mountain we can see a great variety of sights, so in an orchestra we can hear a great variety of sounds. But it is not a strong phrase, as titles go it is not the best. It suggests the weaknesses which we actually find in the poetry. The subtitle, “a symphonic elegy”, is also high-flying but not cogent. It is symphonic in that themes keep repeating, but it is a mood that lasts for 50 pages rather than something highly organised and, indeed, composed. The poems do not fall in a particular order, they do not progress as the book moves on.
The poem keeps repeating a theme of winter.
I shall always come to find her here
forever among the debris of winter.

In this half-world, this cataract of water
Where the elements of vision are dissolved,

An ocean pours into the hold of summer
Whose hopes with ours are ripped and shelved.

(I wonder if the oceans shelving near a coast are like hopes approaching shore?) The hold defines hope as a ship (as we say, "when my ship comes in"). The situation where an ocean pours into the hold is a ship struck at the waterline by a torpedo. This may be the cold of great height, where Theodora spent some of her time. It may also be death, as he describes memories and says

Flowing together into the last cold sea
They loop the living and the dead like necklaces.

The phrase about hopes means they are "ripped (up) and shelved", i.e. postponed. The sea reminds me of Marimarusa, a long poem about the polar ocean (the name means ”dead sea” in an early form of Celtic), which Hendry wrote in 1946-7 but which was not published until 1977. As orchestral does not distinguish one mountain from the others, so in general Hendry does not want epithets to focus associations, he does not want to describe objects more accurately but to open up association into a state of general suggestibility. He does not want to remove any possibility from play. Accuracy is not part of his project. Something similar applies to the forty parts of the long poem, they do not qualify each other. The photograph helps but raises a point that if his long poem contained more photographic moments it would work better. It presents a state of being emotional rather than a series of emotions linked to situations (and to other people’s states of mind).

There may be a merging between the realm of the upper air, which is extremely cold, and the Arctic ocean. I am wondering if this is related to the ice imagery in the poetry of WS Graham, Hendry’s contemporary.

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