Needing Heaven, Knowing Hell
Sarah Wardle’s poems often bear overt traces of her Classical education, which affords her a series of mythological reference points and structures into which to work the material of everyday modern life. The balance between the two contexts, ancient and contemporary, constitutes one of the broader themes that Fields Away, her first collection, explores, and it’s a kind of compromise historical position in the “recently ancient” of childhood memory that emerges as the preferred terrain of this book.
This is as much as saying that Wardle’s poetry tends to concern itself with her own childhood and youth as a remembered idyll, tempered by a sly, adult awareness that anything remembered can become idyllic because we want it to be. The opening poem, “Arcadia” (a title barbed with nostalgia, poisoned with the taint of the unattainable), offers a paradigm of this complexity of meaning, where a contemporary experience, laden with grown-up emotional depth, is rendered in terms of rural imagery into a seemingly timeless moment (the 12 lines are all one meandering, summer-holiday sentence), hovering on the edge of rustic cliché, but rooted in a pastoral tradition transcending both the moment and the clichéd timelessness:
I caught you lift your straggling thoughts over a fence,
your face framed offguard, gazing fields away,
as you herded your words into a sentence,
your eyes brown and deep as the soil’s clay.
Wardle can be a very literary poet, and several of her poems bear comparison with Wendy Cope, without quite matching Cope’s unsettling ear for the punishing satirical angle of attack (compare Wardle’s “Fun With Donne” with Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”, for example, where Wardle punches above her weight after Cope’s sneaky, playground tomfoolery). Within the first few pages of this collection we encounter Homeric and Roman allusions, Wordsworth’s sonnet “On Westminster Bridge, September 3rd 1802” revisited via Shakespeare, a version of Montale, Shelley’s “Nought may endure but Mutability”, and “On Rereading King Lear”, Shakespeare revisited in imitation of Keats.
This is a hectic ride through university English Lit, and sets out the stalls fairly clearly: the Classical, Renaissance and Romantic canons are melded together into a self-consciously “poetic” style of contemporary poetry, a style that Wardle develops as the book progresses. In this reading, the modern becomes, in many ways, merely an agglomeration of the past of our own readings (we are what we’ve already read), so that, in the last-cited poem on King Lear, “Poor Tom acts in a theatre that’s absurd”, and Lear, enacted by the narrator herself, becomes a performance of a very modern experience of mental illness:
I know because I once played Lear myself,
and wandered far inside a foreign land,
whose speech and men I couldn’t understand,
that winter, dressed in an asylum shift.
Our rights are loaned. In these unsettled times,
fate could turn us out of our homes and minds.
The sudden intrusion of the unsettling personal memory (a recurrent word in the book is “schizophrenia”, giving some autobiographical weight to such moments) seems disruptive until we rethink as self-analysis the reading that Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” recounts. The disruption recurs elsewhere in Wardle’s poem, in the broken rhythm and forced vowel-rhyme of the last two lines, themselves encoding Lear’s (and Wardle’s) unsettledness, the loss of loaned rights, absurdity.
In a short poem like “Benjamin”, Wardle matches a perfunctory rhythm to heart-wrenching subject-matter, questioning, as Cope and others have done, how formal choices work in reverse, as it were, subverting conventional notions of the suitable:
Benjamin was like a child,
gentle as a lamb.
Because he didn’t think straight,
the vicar thought him damned,
the village boys threw stones at him,
the doctor diagnosed
him half-witted, and admitted him
to hospital, where on a whim
they administered a drug to him
and cut his temporal lobe.
Blake is clearly in the background here (more canonical Romanticism, returning again later in the bleak contemporaneity of “After Blake”) but so is Stevie Smith’s “Croft”, who sits “Aloft / In the loft” because “He is soft”. Smith’s poem is pared down to pure emotion-as-insistence, and leaves more to the reader’s imagination; Wardle, perhaps, is just as angry and disbelieving (that cutting internal rhyme of “half-witted” / “admitted”), but opts at the end of the poem to “quietly pray” - despair, or abandonment?
This kind of hellish experience peppers the collection, and the modern world’s appearance as hell itself is explored in “Underground”, another poem that verges on cliché in its reworking of a trope at least as old as T.S. Eliot (in relation to the London Underground), and more likely truly ancient, a standard of Classical myth. The poem opens with a line reminiscent of folk-songs (specifically for this reviewer The Pogues’ “Lullaby of London”), before following Odysseus, Persephone, Dante and Milton’s Satan along the well-trodden mythological descent into hell. If it’s still a readable and effective poem at the level of description, it’s because it’s ‘true’ in a general sense, just as watching Romero’s Zombies: Dawn of the Dead and then going mall shopping reveals the infernal ‘truth’ of the film.
Wardle plays games with rhyme, resting content with near- or para-rhyme as musically structuring otherwise loose and flexible poems, leading to odd conjunctions of sound, almost cacophonous echoes. If, in this first collection, her own voice is at times overshadowed by literary traditions (and I haven’t gone far into the debts owed here to Classical forms and themes), her poems are prepared to play with the rhyming and rhythmic forms and conventions she’s inherited from these traditions. The concluding poem, “To the Reader”, is, like the opening poem, a long, single sentence, and draws attention to literature itself and the worlds it constructs as the “sea” into which Wardle, and the reader, together strike out:
but this poem is only one of many,
amid all the pages lost on library shelves,
and that planet revolves around an infinity
of other worlds and other people’s selves . . .
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