if there are birds here
then they are of stone
draught of birds / flesh bone wing
claw in grass
rilled etch gathers to her nets
dust and fire / tree-step (again)
bird claw impinge and lift.
surely light would retain in
silica’s cast or flaw ?
by Christine Murray
from Deep Water Literary Journal 2015, Issue 2
This small poem — “bind” by Christine Murray — carries the jolt of discovery in its small body. It resists the imagination, as Wallace Stevens would expect: but only to that fine degree that aids discovery.
I’d say this poem has “the shape” of discovery. It has the inner form and concision of an archaic anonymous “fragment” from Homeric times: it brings us close to the origins of the craft of poetry. It opens with a note of critical mindfulness that recalls a pre-Socratic thinker against the mythical poets: “if” there are birds here they are not real birds, they are of stone. Is “here” the poem? Does this wee poem then challenge poems that finesse the difference between art and life and contain pretend birds?
From that acknowledgement, that hypothesis, the poem continues with great energy into the space left open by the question. Draught of birds: draught contains the ambiguity of sketching and dragging, load bearing effort. “Creation” or making?
“Flesh bone wing / claw in grass”: dismembered yes but perhaps the muse of Memory intervenes? The flow from “grass” to the succeeding stanza suggests a phoenix-like rebirth.
As the poem takes off, the “fast” distinctions become harder and harder to keep. There’s an unstoppable momentum, as if we were moving from merely counting, to seeing the flow of numbers, then their end in a non-numerical infinity. . . . The imagery is too electric for binaries: the nouns “rilled etch”: again, the tension between a shape and a movement: a rill cut into stone, a rill the water flowing there. A rill’s “etch” “gathers to her nets”: rill becomes an adjective, etch reinforces the cut side of the word, “nets” allows the imagination to see an emerging whole attached to “her”: and what gathers in the rilled etch but “dust and fire,” an archaic universalizing doublet, as we would say in the old Comp Lit days.
So: this bird is a rilled etch gathering to her nets dust and fire!
And with the forward slash this image solidifies: “tree-step” and if you didn’t see it the first time: “tree-step again”! That bird/rill is a tree-step! Tree-step shows us what a tree is to a bird! And this poem is drawing on the earliest poetics of our “English” Germanic craft, the kenning, the noun-on-noun image that bears an almost epiphanic intentionality.
And then the obscurity bursts: a bird! Claw impinge and lift! The hard immobility once again fuses with movement.
Through the stages of the objective mind into the imagination/reality dialectic, we reach a recognition of the playfulness of creation: being as light illuminating the things revealed. The light “at one” with the hard resistant thingness of things:
“surely light would retain in
silica’s cast or flaw” — “cast or flaw” is another doublet that informs the poem’s tightly wound music.”Flaw” itself as multiple meanings, concrete and abstract.
Just how does such a brief poem ratchet things up to the point of the mind’s tripping over its own hypothesis into something like the universal memory (surely light would retain) or the origin? Into that binding of disparate energies — dust and fire — into a kind of primal stuff? Made out of nothing but lucid intensely intelligible play?
Christine Murray is among the subtle “traditionalists” and makers who in their humility as makers, as Ronald Duncan says, consider themselves seekers after origins, not originals. For a poetics worthy of such craft we go back to Vico and his sense of the primacy of the imagination’s myth-making powers. So, Duncan’s demure distinction between seekers after origins and originals while entirely appropriate may mislead.
Murray, in her stone-cutter’s respect for the materials of creation, as a seeker after origins, has become one of the great originals of the contemporary scene.