Close Reading: Words at Sea

Andrew McNeillie’s latest collection, Winter Moorings, was published a little over a week ago, and for my money is his strongest since the Forward-shortlisted Nevermore. The new collection takes risks with form and subject matter, including a number of successful longer pieces that riff on older poetic models (the discursive “By Ferry, Foot and Fate” tugs towards the late eighteenth century, while the experimental voice-play “An English Airman’s Death Recalled” dances elegantly and eloquently around the early radio dramas of MacNeice and Dylan Thomas). But today I want to look at one of the shorter pieces, reproduced below by kind permission of the author.

Words at Sea
(after visiting Kettle’s Yard)

They cannot be dabbed on to suggest
A swell with breaking waves or suspended
In bosomed arcs to float like clouds
On a canvass tugged by sunny wind

Or dispense with syntax and grammar
For those at-a-glance soundless effects
Of worlds half-drowned
In wintering rowboat style.

But oh how they stop the heart
On wreckage of bow or stern or washed-up life-buoy
On Seamen’s Mission’s grievous memorial
On the lips of widows and their children.

(Andrew McNeillie, from Winter Moorings, 2014)

This is the fifth poem in the book, preceded by four others all in some way about the sea. Here the punning title suggests both the literal interplay of words and the sea (“words at sea”) and the sense of words pushed beyond their limits (idiomatically “at sea”), both of which apply to the twelve lines that follow.

On the surface this is a simple poem: the first two stanzas form one long sentence listing things that words cannot do but paint can (presumably prompted by specific paintings at Kettle’s Yard gallery), then the final stanza rebuts this with a memento mori collage of losses that only words can embody. But each side of the argument is subtly undermined by the undercurrents (pun unavoidable) of the verse. Take the opening lines:

They cannot be dabbed on to suggest
A swell with breaking waves or suspended

Agreed, words can’t be dabbed on like impressionist smudges that “suggest” (rather than simply illustrating) a swell. But the interwoven patterns of assonance and sibilance in these lines nonetheless “suggest” the pulse and surge of that same “swell” (vowel pulses in “cannot…dabbed” and “suggest…swell…suspended” – the latter interrupted by a surge of “breaking waves”; then the rushing surf of “suggest..swell…wavessuspended” over the top). I’m normally the first to reject onomatopoeic readings of a poem’s sound patterns, but in this case the tension between the surface claim (words cannot imitate the sea) and the underlying sound-play (words imitating the sea) generates a lot of the poem’s energy.

Likewise, the final stanza is more nuanced than a simple surface rebuttal of what precedes it. All of the words it cites are silent and in some way damaged or misplaced: the names of boats wrenched out of context or fragmented on wreckage; the names of lost seamen memorialized on dry land (an “at-a-glance soundless effect” of a very different kind from the previous stanza’s); and the bereaved words of widows and their children, conspicuously unheard in the poem itself. Equally, the words that make up the final stanza are deliberately less sonorous and mellifluous than those in the first (in direct contrast to their surface argument). Try saying “On Seamen’s Mission’s grievous memorial” aloud, then go back to the opening two lines for contrast. Yes, the last line brings us to a form of assonantal resolution (“lips…widows…children”), but it’s a muted kind of closure.

The poem wisely avoids any explicit engagement with the strengths and limitations of poetry (as opposed to words per se), pushing this down a level into the subtext and the underlying tensions (which is where it properly belongs, since a surface shift from painting to poetry would have been at best predictable and at worst tedious). Instead we’re given hints and impressions, always fretting at the surface meaning but never solid enough to become a distraction.

For all these nuances and countercurrents, the poem’s surface argument is as beautiful and moving as it is understated. There are some lovely touches: the brazen pun on “canvass” that we instantly forgive because “a canvass tugged by sunny wind” is so efficiently evocative; the clash of sibilants that makes “at-a-glance soundless” muddle the tongue at just the right moment; the metrical wave of “in wintering rowboat style”.

One of the best-judged effects (to my ear) comes at the beginning of the final stanza: “But oh how they stop the heart”. “Oh” and its close cousin “O” are words that most poets know to handle with caution:  they’re a bit too poetic for general use (“O rose, thou art sick”; “But she is in her grave, and Oh! / The difference to me”); they have a long and undistinguished history as metrical fillers. But every so often (as here) no other word will do. The skip-and-interruption is exactly what’s needed (try taking “oh” out of the line and you’ll immediately see what it adds).

Auden does something close to this – with a spookily-similar cadence, albeit using an opening trochee-and-iamb in place of McNeillie’s iamb-and-anapaest combo – to pivot a poem around “O but what worm of guilt / Or what malignant doubt” (though he later had second thoughts and unwisely edited both the “O” and the trochaic inversion out). Here the apparently-neutral “oh” (carrying no explicit meaning in a poem about the limitations of words) is the point around which the rest of the line coalesces.

Above all, I think this poem succeeds because it conveys a succession of concrete things direct to the nervous system, bypassing intellectual abstraction. We know exactly what McNeillie is depicting (pun unavoidable) without his having to describe it: we can visualize the paintings, the brushwork, the washed-up wreckage and the bereaved families even though only a very few words have been spent describing each of them (and most of those obliquely). It’s the poetic equivalent of bold, economical brushwork, and the result is a finely-wrought poem that works precisely because it has the confidence to leave important things unsaid.

Winter Moorings, Andrew McNeillie, Carcanet, 2014

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